A college education – for many people it's a key part of the American dream. But paying back large loans has become a burden for millions across the country.

A combined 40 million Americans owe more than $1 trillion dollars in student loans.

At Pellissippi State Community College students choose their programs of study for a number of reasons. But at some point each one of them will end up at the financial aid office.

"At the very beginning counseling our students to let them know what their rights and responsibilities are for receiving a loan,” explained Financial Aid Director Richard Smelser.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Pellissippi State has just over 8,000 undergrad students.

On average students who finish have about $10,000 in debt. A little more than two-thirds pay that back -- which is higher than the national average, but it's a lower rate than at other area institutions.

Pellissippi State students get a phone call from campus if they get behind on their loan.

"We’re making phone calls to remind them and to offer them options on how to avoid default,” said Smelser.

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville has 21,000 undergrad students. Students who finish have an average of almost $20,000 in debt and are repaying those loans at an average of 86 percent – well above the national average.

In a statement, UT officials explain they work with students on financial literacy and even host boot camps to teach students how to manage their money.

"A college degree is the type of debt that is going to continue to pay off as you age, so it appreciates in value over time,” said Maryville College Executive Director of Admissions and Financial Aid Cyndi Sweet.

Maryville College students take part in financial counseling throughout their college careers. The school has 1,200 undergrad students who rack up an average of $27,000 in debt. Students are repaying those loans at a rate of 89 percent – well above the national average.

"Having a plan, staying on track, persevering, taking hours that allow you to be successful, but don't extend your time into a five and six year plan,” said Sweet.

Keeping focused – that's the plan for Pellissippi State student Carlos Gonzalez.

"Every month we paid $4,500 in bills not counting food,” said Gonzalez.

In order for Carlos and his wife to attend school, they had to make sacrifices to handle thousands of dollars in debt.

"We had to sell both vehicles we owed on both and full insurance for both,” said Gonzalez.

That move may seem drastic, but for Carlos and his family – it's worth it.

"What are we willing to sacrifice to have a better future together for our kids,” explained Gonzalez.

The data comparison tool used in this story can be found at the Department of Education's website. If you or anyone you know is looking at going to college this can help compare costs and show just how much debt you might incur.