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State Rep. Nikki Haley

LOS ANGELES -- Student-loan debt is pushing an increasing number of young people and their parents toward bankruptcy, according to a survey released Tuesday.

More than four-fifths of bankruptcy attorneys say they've seen a notable jump in the number of potential clients with student-loan debt in the past few years, with nearly half the lawyers reporting a significant increase in such cases, according to the survey by the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.

Nearly one-quarter of the attorneys surveyed say the number of potential student-loan clients have risen 50 percent to 100 percent, while another 39 percent of lawyers report spikes of 25 percent to 50 percent.

Student debt is rising for obvious reasons: steadily spiraling college costs, financial-aid cutbacks at public universities and a stubbornly weak economy that's making it difficult for graduates to find jobs.

The average student-loan debt of 2010 college graduates topped $25,000, a record. Graduating seniors had an average loan burden of $25,250, up 5.2 percent from the $24,000 owed by the class of 2009, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Student-loan debt is brutal for people who can't pay it off.

Unlike many other forms of personal debt, student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, meaning the debt can hang over students well into their adult lives.

The bankruptcy lawyers group, which issued a report on student-loan debt along with its survey results, says student loans could spur a financial crisis similar to the mortgage meltdown.

"Take it from those of us on the front line of economic distress in America," said William E. Brewer Jr., the group's president. "This could very well be the next debt bomb for the U.S. economy."