Is Your Student Loan Safe?

Instead, Duffield, an incoming freshman at Houston Baptist University, is now applying for private loans, which generally have higher interest rates than federally-backed loans like PLUS. (PLUS loan interest rates are currently 8.5 percent; interest rates on federal Stafford loans are 6 percent this year.)

Duffield has noticed the decline in student lenders. Her local bank, she said, used to offer student loans but recently stopped.

"I would have much rather taken out a loan there than somewhere where I didn't know anyone," she said.

Federal Government Help

NASFAA's Draeger said the federal government has taken steps to shore up the student loan market through the Ensuring Continued Access To Student Loans Act, which was signed into law in May. Among other measures, it allows the U.S. Department of Education to buy government-backed loans from student lenders, thereby providing lenders with more capital that they can then use to make new loans.

The bill passed Congress and hit the president's desk "very fast," Draeger said. "Everyone's on the same page -- no one wants to see a student denied any access to a federal student loan."

Draeger conceded, however, that the credit crunch means that private loans will be harder to obtain.

Charlene Haykel, the CEO of Simply College Aid, a company that advises families on financial aid, advised that when it comes to private loans, students and families should start their research and planning early -- ideally by January of a student's junior year of high school.

"They have to be much more vigilant," Haykel said. Students and parents should treat their search for college funding, she said, "like a job."

"Too often, kids wait until the last minute," she said, "and get into very high-debt situations."

ABC News' Aaron Katersky contributed to this report.

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