TakePart TakesOn: Tips to Avoid College Debt

How to minimize student loan debt and combat the rising cost of college tuition

You’ve probably heard a college degree will lead to a well-paying job and a brighter future. You may have also heard college tuition is rapidly becoming ridiculously expensive. Both are true.

If the thought of taking out loans to pay for school and being tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in debt after graduation makes your bright future appear depressing, or even scare you off college altogether, don’t let it.

The total amount of outstanding student loan debt in the United States exceeds one trillion dollars. Twelve zeros is a harsh reality. Unless Congress forgives student loan debt, those with outstanding loans will likely struggle to meet their obligations.

Taking out a loan for college is an investment in your future. You are betting that what you learn, the degree you earn, and your hard work will help you land a job that will allow you to pay off those loans.

You may not know what you want to major in, or which school to attend, but that’s okay. While you’re in high school, dreaming about all the amazing college courses you want to take, you can start planning how to pay for college and implement strategies to minimize your costs and loans.

I graduated from UCLA this past fall. Here are some strategies that will help minimize the cost of college and minimize your college debt:

1. Coordinate With Your Parents

Make your college plans known to your parents and family. Chances are they’ll do what they can to help you. If they’re willing to pay for any portion of college, take their offer—even if it means cleaning your room. They may have even been contributing to a 529 plan without your knowledge.

2. Research Your Schools

Every school provides an overview of the costs you can expect over four years. Additionally, they may have a large endowment, or maybe even a large debt. I failed to look at this, and paid for it. In fall 2008, my first quarter at UCLA (in-state), tuition for the year was $8,310—what a deal. Only four years later, students will pay $12,600 for the fall semester. The University of California is still a bargain, but just not as good of a bargain as it once was. Get a bargain.

3. Take Scholarships and Grants

There is no limit to the number of scholarships and grants for which you can apply. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by applying. If you can qualify for them, apply for FAFSA and Pell grants. The government increases federal student aid EVERY year.

Make sure to read the fine print. At UCLA it is not uncommon for someone who received a full scholarship for freshman year to be floored upon hearing he/she will only be receiving a quarter of that the following year. The choice between dropping out and taking on more loans is not a decision you want to be forced to make with the clock ticking and midterms to study for.

4. Work

Your post-college goal is to have a job, so why not start working now?

In high school I tutored and refereed basketball to save money before college. Continuing to work in college keeps you busy and provides cash flow. Unpaid work can pay off. An internship is an opportunity to shine and make connections, which could help you land a post-grad job.

5. Live Smart

Housing can be more expensive than tuition at some schools, especially in major metropolitan areas. Serving as an RA usually covers your housing and meal plan costs, potentially saving you tens of thousands of dollars.

I was housing manager of my fraternity for three years. It was a ton of added responsibility, but it reduced my housing costs, and I significantly profited from renting out the house as an apartment complex over three summers.

6. Graduate Early?

My friend Natalie completed her degree in three years—she’s a boss. Why finish a year early? It saved her $12,000 in tuition. Being efficient by taking a heavier course load, summer classes, or having AP credits from high school can make a big difference as college tuition rises.

7. Loans

Loans give you the ability to afford an education at any price. Universities are keenly aware of this, so they raise tuition. Remember, you are responsible for your debts. It’s very easy to look at a line of credit as an open-cash source—it’s not. If you have to take out a loan, get a degree. It’s an investment in your future and it’s up to you to make it pay off.

What are you doing to minimize the cost of your college education? Let us know in comments.

Andrew Freeman is a California native with a degree in history from UCLA. He’s covered a wide range of topics for TakePart, but is particularly interested in politics and policy.  Email Andrew |@natureofdabeast | TakePart.com

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