Financial aid: One of six tools to graduate debt-free

Financial aid dwindling. Rising tuition. College debt over $20,000. Financing a college education can be as hard as paying off a McMansion on an adjustable-rate mortgage. So why is Zac Bissonnette smiling? The senior art-history major at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is set to graduate debt-free. "The great thing about graduating debt-free is that you have tremendous flexibility in terms of your postgraduation plans," says Mr. Bissonnette, author of "Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships or Mooching Off My Parents." "You don't have to rush out and take the highest-paying job to make your sacrifices to the almighty church of Sallie Mae."

Here are six ways you, too, can trim or eliminate college debt:

1. Financial aid: Choose a debt-trimming package

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    The Mason School of Business at the College of William & Mary is shown in this 2009 file photo. William and Mary, which offers free tuition to students of families that make less than $20,000 a year, is one of schools with generous financial aid programs.
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A number of colleges have pledged to limit or eliminate student loans through generous financial aid packages. The schools represent a wide swath of institutions – public and private. Their financial aid packages vary, and many offer aid regardless of family income. Some schools, such as the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and the University of Virginia, offer free tuition for families making less than $20,000. "These schools are sending the message that 'You won't have loans if you come to this school,' or at least, 'Your debt will be limited here,' " says Edie Irons, with the Project on Student Debt, a nonprofit group in Oakland, Calif., that helps students find affordable ways to attend college. (See projectonstudentdebt.org/pc_institution.php.)

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