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When it comes accruing massive debts, student loans are among the biggest culprits. Student loan debt recently surpassed credit card debt in America. So what can you do if you find yourself under a mountain of education debt?

Here are a few ways to dig yourself out:

Get a clear understanding of your student loan burden

The most important number, of course, is the total debt you owe. Beyond that, though, you also need to understand which types of loans you have. There are three main types of student loans:

  • Direct government loans: These are ones you borrow from the federal government itself, and they tend to have lower interest rates than private loans do. They also are sometimes subsidized, which means that the government pays your interest as long as you remain enrolled or during a grace period when you are out of school.
  • Government-backed loans: Since June 30, 2010, these loans are no longer being issued. But many borrowers still owe on these. Like private loans, government-backed loans are borrowed from a private company. Unlike private loans, though, they are backed by the federal government, which means that if you default, the government will reimburse the lender. (Because of that guarantee, these loans have lower interest rates than private loans do.)
  • Private loans: Loans borrowed from a private lender without government backing.

To find out which of these types of student loans you have, try using the National Student Loan Data System, which has information on all education loans. You should be able to find any loans you owe on, along with information about what types of loans they are.

Research federal programs

If you have federal student loans (and most student borrowers do), you need to be aware of some crucial government programs that can help you out. One is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, and anyone who works in a qualifying government or nonprofit job is eligible to apply. Under this program, if you make 120 on-time monthly payments you can have the remainder of your student loan balance forgiven. You need only make payments for 10 years and your remaining debt is erased.

The Income-Based Repayment Plan also helps many student loan borrowers. It allows you to pay lower monthly payments based on your net income. For most students accepted into the Income-Based Repayment Plan, payments are set no higher than 15% of monthly disposable income.

Make a payoff plan

The absolute key to paying off your student loans is to make a realistic and concrete plan for how you will pay them off, month by month. The first step is to decide how much money you can allocate each month to your student loan payments. This number will be different for each person, but it's important that you settle on a number that makes sense for you.

If you pick a number that's too low, it will take you longer to pay off your loans. But if you pick a number that is too high, you won't be able to stick with your plan. So think about it carefully, and use your budget to determine what makes sense for you.

Once you have determined that number, decide how to divvy up the money on each of your student loan payments. You have to make the minimum payments, of course, but it's a good idea to put any extra money toward the loan with the highest interest rate.

Don't ignore the problem, even if you can't pay

The worst thing you can possibly do is simply ignore your student loans and not make any payments. If your lender doesn't receive payments from you as specified in the terms of your loan, it will first declare you delinquent and then, after about 270 days, it will consider you to be in default.

Once you're in default, a lot of things happen:

  • Your loans become due and payable immediately. So instead of owing a monthly amount, you owe the entire balance.
  • Your credit scores will take a big hit.
  • Your federal and state income tax refunds could be withheld.
  • If the debts you have defaulted on are federal loans, the government can sometimes garnish your wages.

Hopefully, you'll never get to the point where you can't pay your student loans. If you stay diligent, keep yourself informed and continue making payments every month, you will eventually become debt-free -- and it may happen faster than you realize.

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