If you're fearful of joining the 40 million college graduates struggling to repay their U.S. student loan debt, here's a way to reduce the burden.  

Consider a job in public service.

Over the years, lawmakers, colleges, and government employers have created potentially valuable loan relief programs for graduates who seek public service employment and often forgo a high-paying career. In some cases, borrowers can maximize the assistance available by combining overlapping benefits from two or three separate assistance programs.

Unfortunately, many public service workers are unaware of this financial aid option. Since the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program began in 2007, the U.S. Education Department says just over 308,000 borrowers have started working toward meeting the requirements for public service loan forgiveness. But a 2015 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office says there are 4 million borrowers who may be eligible.

If this sounds like an option for you, the earlier you start thinking about these plans the better. "It's worth making sure you're accessing all of your options to reduce your education debt, especially if you’re going into public service, which benefits all of us," says Suzanne Martindale, a staff attorney at Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

Here's what you need to do.

Choose Your Loans Carefully

To be eligible for the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program you must borrow using a federal direct loan that originates with the Education Department. Since 2010, all federal education loans are now direct loans. Older Federal Family Education Loans and Perkins loans qualify too, but only if they're first converted into a Federal Direct Consolidation Loan. Private loans don't qualify. 

Look for Public Service Jobs

While in high school or college, set your sights on jobs where you can be employed full-time by a federal, state, or local government agency, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit or a not-for-profit provider of public services. That could mean looking for positions in health care, education, social assistance, and the arts.
Not all public service qualifies, however. Congress' definition of public service work excludes time spent on religious instruction, worship services, or any form of proselytizing; employment at a labor union; or work for a partisan political organization.

Closely Examine Repayment Plans

A requirement of student loan debt forgiveness is that you make 120 qualifying monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan. But do the math to see which kind of loan makes sense. If the term of your loan is the typical 10 years (120 months), your student loan debt will have been repaid in full by the end of your 10-year commitment. At that point, there will be no outstanding balance to forgive.

An income-driven repayment plan, such as the new, federal Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) plan, may be better. With this plan, your monthly payments will be limited to 10 percent of your discretionary income and payments will be spread over 20 or 25 years, so the monthly payments will be lower than in a 10-year plan.

If you also work in public service, you get the advantage of the lower monthly payments and the balance will be forgiven after 10 years.  

Find a School That Offers LRAPs

People engaged in public service work can often get funds to help make their monthly student loan payments through little-known loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs), provided by a growing number of colleges and universities.

LRAPs were created for students attending law schools in the late 1980s to encourage graduates to do low-paying public service legal work. Yale Law School's Career Options Assistance Program pays up to 85 percent of your loan, depending on your income.

Some 70 small, private and faith-based colleges also offer LRAPs as a recruitment tool through partnerships with the LRAP Association. It's a benefit for students who may have a low income after graduating because they choose jobs in public service or, say, in the ministry.

These LRAPs typically pay 100 percent of the monthly loan payment if the graduate's employment income is below $20,000 a year. The benefits phase out above that threshold to an upper limit of $40,000.

Gold on campus for financial product sellers. While some campus banking products offer simple, low-cost fee structures, others come with high or multiple-usage fees that can add up fast. Read our full report on Campus Banking Products (PDF).

Find an Employer That Offers LRAPs

Another option: Many employers offer LRAPs to attract and retain new employees. Those provided by government and non-profit employers help reduce the out-of-pocket cost of your payments and subsidize your 10-year journey toward forgiveness of any remaining balance.

The amount of assistance varies depending on the employer. Each branch of the U.S. military, for instance, is authorized to offer active-duty, enlisted service members a total of up to $65,000 in federal student loan payments. Federal agencies may offer eligible employees up to $10,000 a year in student loan repayment assistance.

Private employers are also beginning to offer repayment assitance, partly to help employees burdened by student loans save for retirement. In January, Natixis, a large international asset management firm, began offering its employees student loan repayment assistance worth up to $10,000, payable over 10 years if they remain employed with the company. 

"People who are not able to start their retirement savings early can never make up those lost years," says Tracey Flaherty, Natixis senior vice president of retirement strategies. Millennials who start off their careers with $30,000 in student loan debt, for example, may end up with $325,000 less in retirement savings than if they had no debt, according to a recent study by LIMRA, an association of more than 850 financial services companies.

What should you look for in a good assistance program? Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of Cappex, a website that connects students with colleges and scholarships, says the best programs pay more of your student loan debt over a longer time, with the fewest restrictions.