[-- Read Time: 2 mins --]

Some college graduates who need help paying student loans have been slighted when they apply for federal assistance, experts say.

But changes that go into effect Thursday could help.

Launched last July, the government’s Income-Based Repayment program caps graduates’ loan payments at 15 percent of their income to make sure their paychecks aren’t drained by their debt. After 25 years, their balance is forgiven.

Whether graduates get help, and how much, depends on their income and debt — those with low income or high debt are considered most in need. But for married couples who filed their taxes together, lenders have compared the individual debt with the couple’s combined income. That led to couples’ getting no help, or less than they should.

“If you file jointly and you both have federal loan debt, under the old rules you could end up paying twice as much in the program as you would if you were single,” said Lauren Asher, president of the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success, an independent research and policy organization. Once the changes go into effect, lenders will factor in the couple’s total income and total debt from federal student loans. If they qualify, both partners will make payments based on their percentage of the overall debt.

After this month, the rules for eligibility will also open the door for those who have racked up substantial interest. Lenders will look at how much debt graduates had when they got their first bill and also at their current debt. Whichever amount is higher will be used to determine whether they get into the program.

Under the rules established last year, lenders looked only at the amount of debt a graduate had when repayment began. That ignored interest, which in some cases is substantial.

“Up until now, it’s possible for you not to be eligible even though you have a staggering amount of debt,” said Edie Irons, who has researched the program for the Institute for College Access & Success.

As of March, 61,000 borrowers have applied for the program, with less than half getting approved, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Those numbers don’t include students who took out federally backed loans from private lenders.

University officials in Ohio said they don’t track how many students use the program, but some question how many students are actually eligible for the program, given its complex rules.

When lawmakers propose legislation to help students with loans, they often intend to reach a wide range of graduates, said Diane Stemper, director of financial aid at Ohio State University. By the time the bill passes, it helps only a small niche.

“Many times, when you get into the actual regulations about how you qualify, it’s very complicated,” she said.

At Ohio State, 53 percent of the 2009 graduating class left with federal loans, Stemper said. Their average debt: $13,517.

Even graduates who are eligible for the program might be put off by its intricate rules and complex formula, said Sondra Williams, the director of financial aid at Ohio University.

“I like that they have several repayment options to choose from, but it seems kind of complicated to me,” Williams said. “Maybe that would steer some people away.”

At Ohio University’s main campus, 65 percent of 2009 graduates left with debt from federal loans, which averaged $17,207.

An online calculator to determine eligibility is available at www.IBRinfo.org.

Copyright (c) 2010, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.