How much college debt is too much?

Chauhan adds that the benefits of encouraging precollege students to research their post-college salaries through sites like and the Bureau of Labor Statistics are threefold. The exercise gives students a realistic view of the post-college economy before they're locked into a degree program that may not support their student debt. It also encourages students to search for debt-lowering scholarships and grants while they're in school and urges those in majors such as philosophy, which don't feed directly into a specific profession, to seek out co-ops and internships that could boost their job marketability.

Build a budget

Before letting clients take on a big student loan, Orsolini researches an entry-level salary in a field of the students' interest and creates a sample budget from there.

"Most parents and students have no idea that the debt load just for maxing out federal Stafford Loans ($27,000 for dependent undergrads) comes to $311 a month for 10 years. That doesn't even include private loans," he says. "Since your student debt load should be no more than 10 percent to 20 percent of your monthly income, it's very easy to hit that threshold in professions with low salaries."

Changes to the federal loan system have made it easier for students in certain low-income professions. The Department of Education reports that students with federal student loans can opt to cap their monthly loan payments at 15 percent of their discretionary income -- defined as earnings more than $16,335 for 2011. Those in public service professions can have their remaining debt dismissed after 10 years of consecutive payments. Bankrate's loan calculator can help students break down what their post-college monthly payments could be.

"Too many students operate under the assumption that the college degree is a magic bullet and they're going to walk into this job starting at $70,000 a year," says Keller. "We're trying to help students take on a manageable level of debt from the get-go."

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