NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The amount students are borrowing to pay for their four-year college degrees is rising across all income levels, increasing their debt burden before they have even landed a job.

A 2014 analysis conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that from 1992 to 2011 and across all four income groups - low income, lower middle, upper middle and high income, college students are borrowing more money. The standard amount of cumulative student debt for their undergraduate degree increased from $12,434 for the class of 1992-93 to $26,885 for the class of 2011-12 (figures adjusted for inflation).

By 2012, “a record share of the nation’s new college graduates or 69%” had used student loans to finance their degrees and the “typical amount they had borrowed was more than twice that of college graduates 20 years ago,” the report said.

Even Wealthy Families Need Student Loans

What was startling is that the Pew Research Center analysis found that even graduates from more affluent families are borrowing even more money compared to low income families.

“Fully half of the 2012 graduates from high-income families borrowed money for college, double the share that borrowed in 1992-93,” the report said.

Both income groups are increasing their borrowing, but vary on their patterns. Students from higher income families borrowed money at a faster rate while a higher proportion of low-income students is graduating with a loan balance. The report found that 77% of low-income students graduated with debt in 2012, compared with 50% of their wealthy peers. Just 20 years ago, only 67% of low-income graduates needed to borrow money for college.

The prevailing trend during the past 20 years is that in the early 1990s most graduates with student debt came from low-income families. The trend has shifted and graduates now from lower-middle and upper-middle incomes graduate with debt and 50% of students from affluent families are also carrying debt.

College Costs Predicted to Rise

According to The College Board, the average annual cost of a four-year college in 2020 will be $46,368, a 38% increase compared to the current fees. The Federal Reserve estimates the average amount of undergraduate student loan debt for the class of 2014 at just over $33,000, a substantial increase from $18,600 in 2004.

Funding college with loans has become a norm for most graduates nowadays. A poll conducted by Gallup in 2014 found similar results. Most degree earners in Gallup's survey graduated with debt: 59% of those graduating between 1990 and 2014 had borrowed at least some amount for educational expenses, including 21% who borrowed between $25,001 and $50,000 and 11% who borrowed over $50,000. The remaining 27% borrowed less than $25,000.

By a two-to-one margin, borrowers were more likely to say that their student loan was a good investment than a bad investment, according to a 2014 National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) survey. More adults would not recommend student loans as a way to finance a college education compared to those who would recommend doing so, the survey said.

“It is disconcerting that graduates cross the stage with a diploma in one hand and student loan debt in the other,” said Gail Cunningham, a financial expert and longtime spokesperson for the NFCC. “Young professionals face a tepid job market, which could make repayment even more difficult. However, NFCC member agency certified financial counselors stand ready to help borrowers find programs that are appropriate for their budget and unique situation.”

Credit Unions Offer Loans

Receiving a student loan from a local credit union can be a good option. Credit unions are often more flexible in underwriting and generally easier to deal with if you are having credit problems, said Peter Nigro, a professor of finance at the Bryant University School of Business in Smithfield, R.I. However, obtaining a loan from a large bank might be cheaper and faster, depending on the borrower’s credit history.

“If the applicant does not have a long credit history or high credit score, credit unions are typically more flexible in underwriting since they do mainly do ‘relationship’ lending as opposed to scored lending,” he said. “They might be slightly easier and cheaper for the ‘non-cookie cutter’ borrower.”

Students should look for loans that don't have extra, hidden fees or penalties for paying them off early, said Joe DePaulo, CEO of College Ave Student Loans, a Wilmington, Del. student loan marketing company and former vice president of banking and finance of Sallie Mae.

“To compare different loans, look at the total cost, and which loan will help you pay the least overall,” he said. “Pay attention to the interest rate you're offered and look for options to lower the rate. College Ave Student Loans offers multiple repayment options with lower interest rates if you commit to in-school payments even as little as $25 each month.”

Another factor to consider when evaluating student loans is additional rewards or interest rate reduction programs such as maintaining a high grade point average, said Jodi Okun, student loans expert for Discover, the Riverwoods, Ill. credit card company.

Discover Student Loans offers a 1% cash reward for its Good Grades program that provides both undergraduate and graduate students who achieve at least a 3.0 grade point average with the reward,” Okun said.

--Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet