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Cox Newspapers

DAYTON, Ohio - Americans owe more than $1 trillion in student loans - a total that surpasses credit card debt - but millions who are past due on their payments are not taking advantage of a federal program designed to make their debt manageable.

The federal income-based repayment (IBR) program reduces eligible borrowers' monthly payments based on income, and it forgives the balance of loans after up to 25 years. Those who owe more than they earn in a year likely are eligible. And those working in public service fields, such as teachers, can have their loans forgiven after 10 years.

"It's not just that the payment is capped for your earnings, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel," said Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access & Success.

Student debt has nearly tripled since 2004, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and college students are borrowing larger amounts.

Add the Great Recession to that mix and recent graduates are finding fewer job opportunities and lower or stagnant wages.

More than 1.3 million borrowers were using the IBR program as of December 2012, according to the Department of Education.

At the same time, about 6.7 million people were more than 90 days behind on their loans, according to the Federal Reserve Bank. And although the IBR program has been available since 2009, the number of borrowers defaulting on their loans increased 31 percent in just two years, according to policy center Demos.