That's why, if you're heading to college, Consumer Reports says the first thing students need to do is fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form.
Galen Royce Nagel will graduate from medical school this year - fulfilling her longtime dream of becoming a doctor. But that dream comes with a hefty price tag.
"I am officially $300,000 in debt," Galen said, calculating she'll have to pay $2,000 a month for the next 30 years. With interest she'll end up paying $600,000 for her education.
"Student loans are different from other types of loans - they can't be erased if you declare bankruptcy. And lenders can take money from your wages, tax refunds, and even Social Security if you don't pay up," said Greg Daughtery of Consumer Reports.
So make sure you take out federal loans like Perkins or Stafford with fixed rates, rather than private loans from banks with variable rates. With federal loans you get more flexible repayment options.
"Generally, with a federal loan, you don't have to start repaying until six months after you graduate or if you drop below half-time at school. At that time you may qualify for any number of payment plans," Daugherty said.
For instance, Federal loans may offer -
-a standard repayment of at least $50 dollars a month for 10 years
-an extended repayment plan that gives you up to 25 years to repay
-graduated payments, which start small and get bigger when you're likely earning more.
There are also income-based payments, which may forgive some of the loan after 25 years.
"You'll save money and get out of debt the quickest if you make the largest payments you can each month, and apply any extra to the principal," said Daugherty.
Another advantage to federal loans - if you are having trouble making your payments, the government will usually work with you to negotiate a deferment or a new repayment plan.
But, no matter what kind of loan you have, Consumer Reports says talk to the lender if you're falling behind to try and protect your credit rating.
Visit FAFSA.ed.gov for more information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.