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I don’t know about you, but I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook — it’s helpful but also really annoying, and even though it enables me to discover new things, it’s a major drain on my resources. I feel the same way about my student loans.

Fun fact: Both started at Harvard University. I guess I love-hate Harvard, too.

Where It All Began

Student loans have become a heated topic in the past several years, as outstanding student debt tripled over the course of a decade and now exceeds $1.3 trillion. More people are going to college, and the price of higher education has skyrocketed, which contributes to the hefty student loan payments many Americans deal with every month.

Despite the problem, student loans still serve their original purpose. A student loan is a tool consumers can use to pay for a college education, and it has been around since 1840.

That’s when Harvard University established the first student loan program.

How Student Loans Grew

The government created the Department of Education 47 years after that first loan program at Harvard, and a collection of financial aid programs and legislation emerged during the next few decades, including the GI Bill, Fulbright Scholarships and the National Science Foundation Act.

Harvard comes into the picture again in 1953 when its financial aid director, John Monro, created the first need analysis formula, according to a timeline of student financial aid on finaid.org. The first federal aid program for low-income students came shortly thereafter, in 1958. Scholarship programs and education aid laws spawned throughout the 20th century, and in 1976, a piece of legislation had a big impact on student borrowers. The first of many updates to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code excluded some student loans from being discharged in bankruptcy. In 1978, the ability to discharge student loans through bankruptcy was eliminated.

Where We Are Now

Student loans are not demonic (though they’ve often be demonized in popular culture and the media), but they’re causing huge problems for those who have them, as well as the U.S. economy. The fact is you have to pay your student loans, so if you take out more than you can afford, you’re looking at stunted financial growth.

It’s a good rule of thumb to graduate with no more student loan debt than your annual salary at your entry-level postgrad job. The government has instituted income-based repayment options for underemployed borrowers, and the debate surrounding loan interest rates and refinancing has continued to bounce among lawmakers, educators, lenders and borrowers. There’s a lot of room for improvement.

But for the time being, if you’re looking to take out student loans, think back to their original purpose: to help you afford a college education. Taking on six figures of student debt — while it gets you that education — isn’t necessarily a good idea. Consider your best options, from the school you attend and degree you earn to the scholarships you can apply for, in order to make the tool work for you.

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