Two years ago, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota started a pilot program to help people on the verge of defaulting on their student loans.

Now, it’s offering the same service free of charge to struggling borrowers across the state, thanks to a two-year grant from Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education.

“The whole idea here is to help people who are slipping a little,” said Larry Pogemiller, the state commissioner of higher education. “[If] all of a sudden you missed a payment, this is to say, ‘OK, let’s not panic.’ ”

As part of the program, people who have fallen one or two months behind on their college loans can get personal advice on how to straighten out their finances. A financial adviser will meet with them in person, by phone or Skype to review their options and help develop a “personal action plan,” said Cate Rysavy, who oversees the program for Lutheran Social Service.

“We’re really seeing people of all ages and stages of life who are struggling with student loans,” she said. “These aren’t just recent grads.”

Many people don’t realize that falling behind in their payments can drop their credit score by 100 points, she noted. Outright default is even worse, jeopardizing their ability to rent apartments, buy insurance, even get a job.

At the same time, Rysavy said, “we’ve found most defaults could have been prevented if borrowers knew their options.” They may, for example, qualify for reduced payment plans, loan consolidations or even loan forgiveness if they work in certain fields.

“Even if you have defaulted, it’s not too late to take action,” she said. “You can repair your credit and get back on track.”

Last year, the Minnesota Legislature voted to fund the program for $150,000 a year for two years. “They asked us, ‘Is this a good idea?’ and we said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” said Pogemiller.

So far, about 120 people have taken advantage of the new program, said Rysavy. “Student loan debt can be daunting,” she said. “We don’t want to minimize that. But there is hope and there is help available.”

 

maura.lerner@startribune.com