It’s a number fraught with anxiety, and it is driving concern over how the United States structures federal student loans

Is there a better way? Critics often point to other countries’ structures as models for an improved American system. But would those systems work in the U.S., with its deeply entrenched economic policies and unique brand of political and psychological conventions?

International researchers and policy makers from Australia, England, Germany and Sweden met at a conference here Monday to discuss those questions. The event, hosted by the University of Michigan’s Education Policy Initiative, explored how other countries structure student loans and how the U.S. system might be improved.

While the U.S. government has its own income-based repayment options, they are heavy on paperwork — and they are much less ubiquitous.

Some of the panelists argued that the U.S. higher education market is simply too different to implement a system like that of Australia or England. But where, others countered, does that leave the millions of Americans who can’t afford their payments?

The most important word here is insurance.’ Contingent loans offer insurance to people, said Bruce Chapman, director of policy impact at Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy and a designer of Australia’s student loan program. If your circumstances change, your loan obligations change with it.

In the U.S., graduates default on their loans when their incomes aren’t high enough and they can’t make sufficient payments, Chapman said. And even when low-income graduates don’t default, their payments can eat up huge portions of their monthly incomes.

In Australia, which debuted an income-based repayment system in 1989, students don’t face those problems. Students who use the system don’t pay anything up front and instead begin to pay back their tuition once they reach a certain income threshold.