Ten tips every student should know about paying for college

Americans owe more than $1 trillion in student debt, and it affects a lifetime of financial decisions. There are ways to minimize your debt by wise planning, finishing early, loan forgiveness, and more.

Butch Dill/AP/File
Find ways to pay for college and reducing the amount you need to borrow.

The world of higher education is full of hope — and some pitfalls too. There's so much to think about as you consider what school you want to attend, and sometimes finances take a back seat to the aspirations you or your child have.

But with student loan debt well over the trillion dollar threshold and university costs spiraling upwards at an incredible rate, keeping your school debt to a minimum is even more important. There are a lot of ways to minimize your debt load and still get the education you want. It just takes a bit of hard work and thought.

Discuss the Negative Effects of Debt

This is the first baby step. Most teenagers are excited about shipping off to college and haven't considered the costs associated with it. If your child isn't going to be able to graduate from their chosen school without a massive debt burden then it's time for a serious chat.

It's worth looking at real life examples like Stephanie Halligan. She even started a blog about getting rid of her $35,000 in student loan debt. Ask her if she wishes her parents had brought up the albatross that student loan debt can become.

We're willing to shop around for lots of things in life — education should be the same way. Researching multiple colleges that would fit your education desires and then making the final decision based on price is a great strategy. Don't be afraid to pick a school that will minimize that ultimate debt load.

Consider a Community College

Many high school students would quickly bypass this idea. But going to a community college for the first two years could substantially reduce your overall higher education costs in a big way. You can attend a lot of these smaller schools for roughly $2,000 a semester. Get your core classes out of the way cheaply and then transfer to the school of your dreams. Your diploma won't look any different, but your debt level will.

Be sure to meet with an advisor at that community college before your first semester to create a plan so that those credits will transfer to your next school. There's a great list of the pros and cons of attending a community college at Scholarships.com.

Fill Out the FAFSA

This is still the key for much of your financial aid eligibility. Make sure to fill it out by the deadline your college of choice has assigned. All federal loans and grants are determined by the FAFSA. Most colleges use this to determine your financial aid eligibility as well.

Apply for as Many Scholarships as Possible

A site like Fastweb can help you with that. You'll also want to be sure to ask questions of your school's financial aid department as well as your specific academic department to scour for other scholarships they might be aware of. It's hard to find an accurate number, but a lot of scholarship money goes unclaimed altogether every year. Applying early and often could be your ticket to getting the money you need for school.

Get a Job

An on campus job is a great way to make a little extra money while you're in school. Often those earnings go directly towards lowering your financial burden. Becoming an RA could make another big dent in your school loans. College is a busy time but these added obligations will perform double duty of cutting your costs and looking good on your resume in the future.

Consider Finishing School Early

This might sound like a fanatical idea since some college students take even longer than four years to complete a degree. It is possible, however, to finish in less time. Take more hours than what is required. An average of one extra class per semester will put you on a path to graduating almost a whole year sooner. It might mean a little less fun along the way but it could mean a whole lot less debt as well.

If you're a full time student (12 hours or more) colleges often charge the same whether you take 12 hours or 20. Don't forget that you'll be saving on living expenses since you'll shorten your overall stay, and you'll hopefully start making an income sooner too.

Save Ahead for College

529 plans are one of the greatest savings vehicles available to parents and grandparents. If you are fairly certain your little one will be attending college, starting to save monthly in one of these state sponsored plans is a great idea. There are often tax benefits associated with putting money in these accounts as well as tax benefits when spending that money for college expenses. There are also resources out there to help you choose the best plan with the lowest fees.

Just beware that if the money is not spent on college expenses you will be charged a 10% penalty on your earnings. If you are worried about that possibility a flexible retirement account such as a Roth IRA could prove to be a good choice for you. There's a great guide at Saving for College that sorts through the advantages of saving using a Roth IRA versus a 529 plan.

Say No to Private Student Loans

Private student loans are bad news. They can carry variable interest rates and those rates can soar much higher than federal student loan rates. The repayment and deferment rules aren't as lenient as federal loans either. For instance, the Income Based Repayment program available for federal student loan borrowers doesn't apply to private loan holders. Modifications in case of financial hardship are extremely unlikely and could cost you more money.

You can read more about why private student loans are bad news in this Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report.

Participate in an Internship

Statistics still tell us that most people still find employment through networking. And, although it can be helpful, I'm not talking about LinkedIn. Real workplace connections can forge legitimate work opportunities and give you the real experience that employers value. Getting your foot in the door in the industry you want to work in can be the difference between graduating with employment or without it. Added bonus: You sometimes get paid, or receive college credits at the same time.

Loan Forgiveness is Possible

If you work in a "public service" job there's a good chance you are eligible for student loan forgiveness after 10 years. That means that after 120 consecutive on time payments, the rest of your student loans are 100% forgiven. The website IBRinfo gives great information in easy to understand language.

Even if you don't work in a public service profession, you can still have your student loan debt forgiven under the government's IBR plan or Pay As You Earn. These are both great options for graduates with student loan debt.

College is expensive and costs are rising faster than the rate of inflation. Higher than necessary student loan debt has crushed far too many young people. Use these tips to combat expenses and graduate in a more financially secure position.

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