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Students walk to class at San Francisco City College in San Francisco.

Nine essential tips to save on higher education

College and grad school are unavoidably expensive, but there are ways to lower the burden. Financial aid is just the start.

You don't need reminders about the high the cost of college. With all the headlines, it's hard not to know that federal student loan debt is more than $1.2 trillion. The class of 2016 graduated with more than $37,000 in student loan debt on average.

There's a reason they call it higher education — the price keeps going higher and higher. However, there are plenty of strategies to rein in the debt that comes along with a college diploma.

Borrow Only What You Need

Forget the feeling that you're getting free money. What you borrow you have to repay. "Borrowing more than you need is never a good idea," says Bob Collins, vice president of financial aid at Western Governors University.

In 2013, Western Governors University started a Responsible Initiative to encourage students to borrow only what they needed to complete their degrees. Since then, average borrowing per WGU student (of those who take out loans) has decreased by $3,200 per year, a 40% reduction. "We're also seeing a reduction in debt at graduation for undergraduates each year. In 2015, the average (for those who took out loans), was $19,050, nearly $10,000 less than the national average," says Collins.

Ask Your Employer About Tuition Assistance

Many companies offer tuition assistance to employees. While some require that the degree be related to the job role, that's not always so. Ask your human resources department for details on your company's policy. The military also offers the chance to earn undergraduate and even graduate or professional (medical/dental/legal) degrees in exchange for a set term of enlistment.

Earn More Scholarships With Extracurriculars

"Sure, GPA and SAT/ACT scores are very important. Colleges value and reward rigor in your schedule. AP courses and SAT II's factor in favorably. But leadership, community service and mission work are valued more now than ever," says Hans Hanson, founder of Show your initiative by starting a club or taking a leadership role in an existing club.

International travel, studying abroad, and diverse hobbies also will help you stand out from the crowd. All these "extras" may lead to scholarships.

Submit Your FAFSA Early

Submit your FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid) early and appeal to get your fair share. Financial aid is typically a first-come, first-serve award of the colleges. There is a priority-date-deadline, often February 1, which separates all applicants into one of two pools, primary and secondary, explains Hanson. The primary pool of financial aid applicants file their FAFSA ahead of the priority-date-deadline. "They are the first in line for consideration and distribution," says Hanson.

"Often the funds are depleted before the secondary pool is evaluated, leaving many qualified financial aid applicants left out. It's that simple."

If you think it's not big deal, think again. "Often the funds are depleted before the secondary pool is evaluated, leaving many qualified financial aid applicants left out. It's that simple."

Look for Scholarships Based on Your Plans

"What are your plans for study? A question you will get asked 100 times for which the answer can unlock serious scholarship dollars," says Hanson.

Vision recruiting is defined as the preferential treatment applicants get for admission acceptances and scholarship awards based on the student's ability to express a vision for their future, an understanding of current issues, a feeling of concern and challenges, a plan for college studies and how they can be a part of the solution. "This remains the single best way for students to separate themselves from their competition. It also remains the single most missed out opportunity of students."

Pay Back Loans Quickly

The sooner students pay their loans in full, the less interest they'll pay. Ask for forgiveness. Certain professions, such as teaching, may be eligible for a variety of programs. For example, if a teacher agrees to teach in a disadvantaged school district, they can have their federal loans forgiven, cancelled, or discharged. Find out more from the Department of Education.

Go to Community College

Community or junior colleges are far less expensive than four-year colleges. "If you attend a community college and transfer credits to a four-year college, you could potentially save a lot of money. Be sure though, that the credits are transferable," says Scott Vance, a financial planner with Trisuli Financial Advising. A few states offer free tuition for two years of community college for recent high school graduates, find out if your state is one of them.

Take a Gap Year

Who says you have to head to university immediately following high school? Look at Malia Obama! The so-called "gap year" is very popular. Time off, be it one or two years, offers the opportunity to do volunteer work, get real life work experience, travel. College is too costly to be anything other than serious about where you're going and having a plan to get there. Any money earned can help pay college costs too.

Make Smart Spending Choices

College life can be tempting with everyone eating out, partying, and shopping. It's up to parents to preach the importance of living within their means. Students may not need a car, they certainly don't need an expensively decked out dorm, and they need to talk about budgeting long before leaving for school. They'll likely have student loan debt when they graduate, so encourage them not to walk away with massive credit card debt, too.

This story originally appeared on

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