DELPHOS - This is the time of year when high school seniors are looking forward to college, filling out and filing applications for college scholarships and financial aid and thinking about how much this education will actually cost them in the long-term.

The New York Daily News reports Americans owe $1.2 trillion in student loans, a number that has tripled in the last decade and surpassed credit card and auto loan debt totals.

According to Scholarships.org, accumulated student loan debt ranges between $26K-$100K and depends on career goals and the availability of grants and scholarships to help offset any unmet need.

CNN Money reports research by the New America Foundation (NAF) indicates graduate school debt is playing a key role in the ballooning of overall student loan debt and students who went to a university for a graduate degree borrowed $57,600 in 2012, a 43 percent increase from $40,209 in 2004.

Research from NAF doesn’t say how much of it comes from the 1.7 million graduate students nationwide, separate federal data showed that graduate loans were 41 percent of student loans issued in the fall of 2012 making up just 17 percent of all student loan borrowers.

Those getting a Master of Business Administration took out $42,000 to finance their education in 2012, just $600 more than the same graduates borrowed in 2004. In contrast, borrowers financing Master of Arts degrees were $58,500 in debt in 2012, or $20,500 more than in 2004.

First Federal Bank’s Retail Lending Manager Elaine Evans said the first step to getting any student loan financing is to go on-line and complete the “Free Application for Federal Student Aid” or FAFSA.

“There are many scholarships available locally and on the Internet; be cautious,” she warned. “Do not give out any personal information unless you are 100 percent sure of who you are working with.”

According to new analysis of government data from Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president at Edvisors Network and author of “Filing the FAFSA”, about 2 million students could have qualified for the need-based Federal Pell Grant during the 2011-12 academic year, but failed to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) required to receive it.

Of that group, 1.3 million would have qualified for a full Pell Grant of $5,645 for the 2013-14 academic year and nearly half of those who didn’t file the FAFSA believed they were ineligible — thought their family made too much money to qualify — according to the analysis. The eligibility for grants and the terms of federal loans are based on a variety of factors, including expected family contributions, income and assets, the number of children in the family who are in college and the cost of college.

Ninety-six percent of Pell Grant recipients report incomes of less than $50,000, it’s still possible to qualify with a six-figure salary depending on your other circumstances.

There are a variety of loans for students and/or their families including:

• Federal Direct Stafford Loans which are available in two forms, subsidized and unsubsidized;

• Federal Perkins Loans available to undergraduate, graduate and professional degree seeking students; and

• Federal Direct PLUS Loans available to the parents or legal guardians of dependent children who wish to contribute to their child’s college fund.

After graduation and before they secure a job, many borrowers can’t afford student loan payments and the first thing to do is prevent a financial disaster by contacting the student loan servicing company and discussing payment plan options.

There are a variety of repayment plan options for Federal student loans. When borrowers see their first statement - after the six month grace period expires - the lender’s default standard repayment plan is ten years of even payments.

“It’s a good idea to try and pay the interest on the loans, even while in college because interest on the loan continues to accrue,” Evans explained. “In other words, borrowers will be paying interest on top of the interest they were already charged.”

The Income Based Repayment Plan (IBR) is one of the most common repayment plans borrowers switch to when they have a financial hardship. If a borrower has loans from before July 1, 2014, payments will not be higher than 15 percent of their discretionary income. On this plan, borrowers will make payments for 25 years and at that point, their loans will be forgiven.

Borrowers with loans made after July 1, 2014, will incur loan payments that will not exceed 10 percent of the their discretionary income and the loan will be forgiven after 20 years. The amount of a borrower’s “discretionary income” is determined by a formula based on family size and income tax returns. Studentloans.gov has a calculator to help determine the amount.

The Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (PAYE) is similar to the IBR Plan where borrowers will not pay more than 10 percent of their discretionary income and the loan will be forgiven after 20 years. The key difference is that only certain loans going back to 2007 qualify for this plan.

With the Income Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR), there are no initial income requirements and any eligible borrower may make payments under this plan which will be the lesser of 20 percent of an individual’s discretionary income or the amount an individual would pay on a repayment plan with a fixed payment over the course of 12 years, adjusted according to their income. With the ICR plan, loans will be forgiven at the end of 25 years.

Student loan forgiveness options can be helpful to some borrowers, for others, it may result in tax consequences. Under current IRS rules, individuals may be required to pay income tax on any amount that is forgiven for any of these plans since the forgiven amount of the student loan is added to the borrower’s taxable income for the year.

If a borrower had $50,000 in student loans forgiven under a repayment plan — considered income — and made $35,000 working, the individual’s total income for the year would be $85,000 resulting in a higher tax bill. For many borrowers, this tax bill is much more manageable than the original debt itself, so the plan makes sense.

Student loan borrowers need to be aware of predatory lenders including Student Loan Consolidation, Aid Companies or other variations, aggressively advertising to those who have loans due, especially those in need of assistance. These predatory companies pay for lists of students who used financial aid while attending private for-profit colleges and target the borrowers on Facebook, through direct mail ads that look very official and with cold phone calls.

When the predatory company contacts a borrower, the conversation focuses directly on how much money a borrower can save and not how or through what program. Typically, the company asks for the school loan balance and jumps right into advising the borrower how much they could save or get forgiven and never explains the process. All of these tactics should be red flags for student loan borrowers.

The list of companies known to market aggressively to student loan borrowers includes Student Processing Center, Student Loan Processing Center, Nationwide Processing Center, SLC Processing Center, Student Aid Center and Student Loan Resolve.

The companies aren’t fraudulent but they are using tactics and marketing a $300-$1,500 service to borrower’s who can negotiate their own student loan consolidation by determining the best student loan consolidation program, filing all the paperwork and finding answers to all their questions acting on their own behalf.

Direct Consolidation Loans are available for free through the U.S. Department of Education at StudentLoans.gov. There are also CU Student Loans offered by a network of credit unions that don’t require up front fees.

For more information visit fafsa.ed.gov and studentloans.gov.