Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Hope Marie Harley (c.) works in the counseling office at Frederick Community College on a work-study program to avoid student debt, on October 6, 2015 in Frederick, Maryland.

Tips on college debt from schools whose grads owe less

Make sure you are making college debt manageable by taking these tips from schools with graduates that didn't break the budget to graduate. 

Student loan debt increased 56% between 2004 and 2014 — more than twice the rate of inflation — according to a report released this week from The Institute for College Access and Success, which lists the schools and states with the highest and lowest levels of debt for 2014 graduates.

Students in the Class of 2014 who borrowed owe an average of $28,950. But the 20 schools on the institute’s low-debt list have average graduate debt loads of roughly half that amount or less.

Using state data compiled by the institute, NerdWallet ranked the colleges with the least student debt, a list led by the City University of New York’s York College, which also topped 2013’s report. Graduates from the school hold only $4,745 of student debt on average. Scroll to the end or click here to see the full results.

Other findings from this year’s institute report:

  • Only eight colleges from last year’s list ranked among the top 20 lowest-debt schools this year.
  • New York and California have more colleges on the list than other states.

Schools on the institute’s low-debt list vary widely, including public and private institutions, with big and small campuses and different tuition levels. Most work to meet students’ financial needs through grants and other programs.

No matter what kind of college you attend, though, you can use the following five tips to keep your student loan debt under control.

1. Hard work pays off

Among the top five schools with the lowest debt levels, two require that their students work: Berea College in Kentucky and College of the Ozarks in Missouri. Both schools are private.

“The college has its own work-study program,” says Marci Linson, dean of admissions at College of the Ozarks, where graduates have an average of $6,282 in debt. “Every student admitted, regardless of financial standing, is required to work on campus.”

Berea College’s work requirement is similar. The program pays per hour based on the job’s level of responsibility, says Theresa Lowder, director of student financial aid services. The college’s average student debt is only $6,186.

Schools that don’t require work often encourage it. Martin Miles, director of financial aid at Hampton University in Virginia, which is public, says he encourages students to work when school is out of session. The income, he says, can “help pay for books, supplies and associated living expenses, so as to avoid total reliance on student loans.” Students at the school graduate with an average of $9,231 in debt.

The federal work-study program can help students at more than 3,000 participating schools. Jobs within the program are awarded based on need to students who file the FAFSA.

2. Look beyond the sticker price

It’s hard to identify how much a school will actually cost, says Debbie Cochrane, research director at the institute that did the report. “For students considering any college, the actual cost out of pocket may not be the published price that the college puts out. If they get grant aid to help cover those costs, that’s a reduction in how much students and families have to pay.”

Scott Wallace-Juedes, director of student financial services at Wellesley College, agrees. The debt load at this Massachusetts private school averages $12,956.

“When it comes to potential debt, we remind students to think beyond a school’s sticker price. They should also have a deep understanding of a college’s commitment to affordability and financial aid,” Wallace-Juedes says. “By understanding a college’s financial aid policies and financial strength, students are much more likely to be able to minimize the amount of borrowing and student loan debt.”

Cochrane says colleges are required to have a net price calculator online, which allows students and their parents to estimate their costs to attend the institution. The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard can also help.

3. Stick to the four-year plan

Graduating on time may be the single best way to cut costs, yet many students don’t do it, according to research from Complete College America, which found that only 19% of full-time bachelor’s degree students graduate in four years.

Sticking to that timeline is the first thing students can do to reduce their debt, says Kim Anderson, director of financial aid for Lincoln University, a private school in Pennsylvania where students graduate with an average debt of $12,082.

“They should borrow only what they need and then make every effort to graduate on time,” Anderson says. “Students automatically incur more debt when they take longer than four years to finish their programs.”

4. Maximize scholarship and grant opportunities

Many students search for scholarships in high school, but fail to repeat the exercise throughout college. That’s a mistake, says Miles.

“Students should always continue to search for external scholarship opportunities frequently, from the point of admission through graduation.”

If you’re not sure where to look, start with your financial aid office. NerdWallet’s freeFAFSA Guide can also help walk you through applying for federal financial aid.

“Make sure that you avail yourself [of] the financial aid officers at the school to ensure you’re getting all scholarships and grants available to you,” says Kelly Hicks, director of financial aid at Rogers State University in Oklahoma. “The world of financial aid can be dizzying to navigate, so it’s good to have professionals on your side to work with you.” Students at Rogers State, which is public, graduate with $13,403 of debt on average.

5. Make it to the finish line

Finally, graduating from college is key. Despite the debt that often comes with it, a college degree is worth $1 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“Once a student starts a bachelor’s degree program at a public or nonprofit school, the most important thing they can do is to graduate,” says Cochrane. “We don’t have a lot of information on the share of students who don’t graduate from these schools, yet still have debt, but we know the students who don’t graduate are the ones who will struggle the most to repay their debt.”

This article first appeared at Nerd Wallet.

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