Americans owe more than $1.2 trillion in student loans, and Millennials are carrying most of that debt. And they'll be carrying it for a long, long time, according to a new survey of 1,000 Millennials by ORC International, commissioned by the PR firm PadillaCRT. Almost two thirds of respondents reported having at least $10,000 in student debt. More than a third said they owed more than $30,000.

The picture is particularly bleak for women. While 27 percent of male Millennials said they owed more than $30,000 (which is bad enough) a frightening 42 percent of women Millennials said they had debt that high.

High student debt is bad news for the Millennials who owe it, but it's also bad for society at large, because heavy student debt has far-reaching consequences. Significant numbers of Millennials are planning to put off life-establishing moves that people have traditionally made in their 20s and 30s. Forty-one percent say they'll put off buying a house and 31 percent say they'll delay buying a car. More disturbingly, 17 percent say they won't get married yet because of the burden of their student debt, and 31 percent are putting off having children because of it.

By the time they do pay the debt off, it may be too late to make good on their big plans. A quarter of those with debt over $30,000 expected to still be paying that debt 20 years or more in the future. And those who expect to pay their loans off more quickly may be wrong. Although student loans are typically structured with a 10-year repayment plan, research shows that the average bachelor's degree holder takes 21 years to pay off his or her student debt--even longer for those with graduate degrees.

What should you do if you're a Millennial with crippling student debt? Unfortunately, you can't ignore it or wish it away. But there may be ways to get it paid off more quickly and keep it from ruining your life:

1. Ask your employer about student debt repayment assistance.

So far, only about 3 percent of employers offer student debt repayment assistance. But some high-profile employers have recently announced such programs, student debt was much discussed during the last presidential election, and the OCR International survey shows student debt repayment is the surest way companies can create engagement among Millennial employees. Given all that, it's likely that more companies will start offering some kind of student debt assistance. It makes sense to include the question in your compensation negotiations.

2. Look for jobs and locations with student loan forgiveness deals.

Certain public service professions, such as teaching or law enforcement, often come with student debt forgiveness if you commit to stay in the job for a certain number of years. Additionally, some communities offer student loan repayment incentives to attract young professionals. If relocating fits your lifestyle, one of these places may be right for you. You may be able to reduce your loan even faster by volunteering in a program that offers student debt reduction. Zerobound and SponsorChange are good places to look for such volunteer opportunities.

3. Don't let student debt run your life.

While it's certainly true that financial prudence dictates paying off a large debt before you do something like purchasing a house, it's a shame to put off marriage because of it. By pooling resources, you and your future spouse might even be able to pay off loans more quickly.

Having a child is of course a major life decision that certainly works better with some financial stability, but it's also not something you can delay indefinitely. No one can tell you when the time is right to have a child, but try not to let student debt dictate your procreation. One solution might be to do some debt consolidation, reducing your monthly payments (while extending the life of your loan). That could make having a child more affordable. At least until it's time to pay for college.

Published on: Jan 11, 2017
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