How do I know if I have too much student debt?

Student loans can help you pay your way through college -- and keep paying for the next several decades.
Student loans can help you pay your way through college -- and keep paying for the next several decades.

Financial debt is a pretty relative state. If we look, for example, at the U.S. government debt of $1.8 trillion in mid-2008, the average student-loan debt of $23,000 is chump change [sources: Ohlemacher, Chaker].

Of course, the U.S. government pulled in $2.7 trillion that year, while eight out of 10 college students graduate without having secured a job [sources: GAO, Clark]. No money coming in is a drag on the loan-repayment schedule.

The fact is, most financial aid comes with strings. Only scholarships, some grants and institutional tuition discounts are free money; federal and private loans require payback, with interest. So while many students breathe a sigh of relief when they obtain financial help to cover the skyrocketing cost of a four-year degree, that relief ends quickly after graduation, when it's time to pay back that help.

Certainly many students are equipped to cover their payments, but these financially secure borrowers are a dwindling population. Meanwhile, the number of borrowers and their loan amounts is increasing. In the mid-'90s, 58 percent of college students took out loans, ending up with an average debt of about $14,000; fast-forward to 2009, and 66 percent of students are carrying an average $23,000 in debt when they graduate [source: Chaker].

Most of those students don't have jobs lined up. Many of those who do will be pulling in less than they'd expected and not enough to comfortably cover their payment schedule. Or cover it at all.

Student loans aren't a bad thing, though, by any stretch of the imagination. Without them, most people couldn't afford a higher education. The trick is determining the line between helpful loan and unmanageable debt. In this article, we'll find out where that line is and look at some programs available to help graduates who find themselves in over their heads.

As with most things, maintaining the positive nature of financial aid is all about moderation. Over-borrowing is typically how things turn ugly.