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Related topics: college, student loans, financial aid, college costs, debt

There really aren't any cheerful numbers regarding student loans. In fact, they're all pretty depressing. Consider: Student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt in the U.S., according to recent Federal Reserve numbers. Roughly two-thirds of college students are borrowing cash, graduating with an average debt of about $24,000, according to the Project on Student Debt. And nearly two out of five student loan borrowers fell behind on payments at some point in the first five years of repayment, according to the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

"A lot of families sign whatever piece of paper is put in front of them, thinking they'll just figure out how to pay it back," says Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of FinAid.org and FastWeb.com. "They're often surprised by the interest rates when they graduate."

But don't worry. Student loans are "good" debt, right?

Not necessarily. Students and their parents who are contemplating big loans for college need to think seriously about what life will be like after the diploma is in hand. College grads who exit school with $10,000, $50,000 or $100,000 in student loans quickly find all that debt doesn't feel so good after all. I spoke to a few borrowers to see what life is like on the flip side of a student loan.

Lesson No. 1: Like living with your parents? Good. Get used to it.

When it was time for Kelli Space to attend college, she didn't hesitate to enroll at Boston's Northeastern University. "I was in honors classes in high school and all of my friends were going to Princeton or U-Penn or Fordham -- expensive but well-known universities," says Space, now 24. "That was just what I thought you did." Unfortunately, Northeastern isn't cheap, and Kelli graduated with about $200,000 in debt -- money she's not even sure she should have been allowed to borrow. "I was between the ages of 18 and 21," she says. "And I didn't need a co-signer for eight out of 10 of my loans."

At the time, her guidance counselor and financial aid adviser both told her that "people take out loans all the time," that "you're making an investment in yourself." And since neither of her parents had attended college, no one in her family had a clear understanding of what it would be like to borrow that kind of money. Today, Space's loan payment is just under $900 a month -- and will jump to more than $1,600 in November. For now, she can swing the payments, but that's because she lives with her folks -- something she doesn't see changing in the foreseeable future. "I was a sociology major and now I'm an office manager," she says. "So there's not huge room for income growth."

She works overtime when she can and also baby-sits, but it'll be more than two decades before she's debt-free. In the meantime, she's started a website -- twohundredthou.com -- and has managed to raise $10,000 toward her balance. "If I could rewind time, I wouldn't have had such a bad opinion about community college or a state school for at least a year or two," she says. "Or I would've worked for X amount of time beforehand to see what major I wanted. No one was there to make sure that I knew what I was doing."

Lesson No. 2: You'll pay back more than you borrowed. Lots more.

When Heather, now 35, went back to school for her MBA, she had dreams of the great job -- and paycheck -- that would inevitably follow. Instead, she graduated in 2008 in the midst of a recession with more than $75,000 in student loans and a job that doesn't pay what she'd hoped. Now she's on the federal government's income-sensitive repayment plan, and of her nearly $350 monthly payment, exactly $15 goes toward the principal on her loan.

"I'm looking at decades of repayment the way I'm going now," she says. "Basically, with each merit increase I get at work, the money is already promised to Citibank. I see my student loan debt extending years and years because I'm only paying $15 a month on the principal."

In the meantime, Heather watches every penny she spends, and she isn't saving for retirement. And travel? What's that? "All of my money is going toward my bills," she says. "I'm grateful I can pay all my bills, but I have no discretionary income. I think it's ridiculous that because of my student loans, that because I went to school, my life is so restricted now."

Lesson No. 3: You could still be paying off your loans in your 40s.

Stefanie, 27, got her undergrad degree from a small private school in New York to the tune of $100,000 in student loan debt. When she graduated, her finances were rough. "One whole check went to student loans and the other to rent and living expenses," she says. "I learned to do a lot with a little." Since then, falling interest rates have decreased her monthly payment from $1,000 a month to $675, but writing that check is still limiting. "I have peers going to grad school, traveling, and that's not an option for me," she says. "Based on my payment schedule, I will have these paid off in 2031 -- at the age of 47."

When she contemplates how long the debt will be on her plate, she has trouble imagining hitting other milestones -- marrying, buying a house, starting a family -- while she's still paying it down. "I don't feel as if I can afford to do those things, at least to the degree they should be done," she says.

Unlike some of her peers, though, Stefanie would do it all over again. "It's not as if I have significant student loan debt with nothing to show for it," she says. "I have a great job in what can be a very difficult industry, and having this financial responsibility, albeit tough, has made me much wiser when it comes to money."

Three ways to graduate debt-free.

A four-year degree doesn't have to mean two decades of hard-core debt. Here are three strategies for leaving school in the black -- and I don't mean your cap and gown.

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Consider living at home during school. Yes, leaving the nest is part of the college experience for many undergrads. But that also comes with a significant cost -- and the occasional sketchy roommate. For Dan, 23, the experience wasn't worth the extra cash. "Financially, I couldn't live on campus without taking on substantial loans, and that wasn't a trade-off I was willing to accept," he says. "Plus, commuting to school cut the price to the point where I was able to attend a private school instead of a state university."

Supplement your education. You don't have to be in college -- or even physically on campus -- to earn college credits. Dan took College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests, such as AP exams, community college classes while he was in high school and summer classes when he was in college. "As a result, I was able to complete my undergraduate studies in three years," he says. "That saved a whole year of tuition." Another college grad -- Shawn, now 30 -- took online courses and exams from Thomas Edison State College, based in Trenton, N.J., which charges a low per-credit rate and minimal tuition. "I graduated from TESC in 2007, debt-free, and started my MBA last summer," he says.

Make smart choices. Imagine you're holding two college acceptance letters, and one of them is offering you a full ride. Which one will you choose? Maybe this goes without saying, but I'm saying it anyway: If you're hoping to avoid a several-hundred-dollar payment once a month for the next 10-plus years, you should go for the school that wants to pay you to attend. Having a degree from a top-tier Ivy League university is going to bring you very little joy when you're still living with your parents in your late 30s because you can't afford to rent an apartment.