For students who don't qualify for NIH or NHSC programs, several other options may be worth looking into. Many states have their own loan-repayment programs. You can find a database online.

There are also loan forgiveness programs, which work differently from repayment programs. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLP), for example, requires you to make 10 years' worth of minimum payments before they kick in — and since the program was created by Congress in 2007, only loan payments made after Oct. 1, 2007, qualify, meaning that the first loans will not be forgiven until 2017.

As with the NHSC program, you must be working at an approved site to qualify. To learn more about the PSLP, visit the Department of Education's Student Aid website.

The important thing is to start the research process early — preferably as an undergraduate or early in graduate school — so you'll be situated to take advantage of these programs that can help improve not only your debt, but your quality of life as well.

—A. Walton