Are you a college student who can’t escape uneasy feelings surrounding college tuition and future debt? You are most certainly not alone. In fact, around 45 million Americans (17.4%) have some sort of student loan debt hanging over their heads and are wondering how they’ll afford it (and just how long it’ll take to pay off in order to never have to think about it again).
Take it from me—I’m a college student myself and have found myself in the exact same position as you a time or two before. I won’t sugarcoat this because the cost of college is overwhelming, worrisome, and nerve wracking. But you’ve got to remember why you’re there in the first place. You’re there to receive an educational experience that helps you grow and expand your knowledge and skills in the field in which you are passionate, and to be set up for success post-college.
So, friends, let’s try to calm those nerves because graduating with less student debt is possible. I’m here to help you kick your motivation into high gear and give you 8 helpful tips you can follow to graduate with less student debt.
Keep Tuition Costs Top of Mind When Choosing a College
The first step before leaving the nest is making the big decision on where to attend college. The options are endless, and you can choose from public and private schools, community colleges, vocational-technical and career schools, liberal arts colleges, and more.
Public vs. Private Universities
Public universities receive support from local and state governments, and, as a result, typically offer much cheaper tuition rates compared to private colleges, especially for residents that live in state. Private universities, on the other hand, rely heavily on tuitions, fees, and private sources of funding like donations, so the price tag on private schools is often much higher regardless of whether you live in or out of state.
Community colleges are excellent, affordable options that can often be found close to home. They provide you with more flexibility allowing you to go to school while still living at home, maintaining a job, and taking care of your family, which are all ways to save a significant amount of money.
Community colleges offer two-year associate degrees, so, depending on what you’re studying or what type of degree your field of work requires, earning an associate degree may mean that you’re finished with school after that point and can get out into your field faster to make money. Otherwise, associate degrees are great stepping stones that prepare you to transfer to a four-year institution and finish the requirements necessary to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Vocational-Technical and Career Colleges
Vocational-technical and career schools offer specialized, hands-on education and training in specific industries including healthcare, culinary arts, dental hygiene, HVAC, carpentry, cosmetology, and more. They’re extremely affordable and will only take approximately 1-2 years to earn a degree or certificate and get you out into the real world to start your career and make a living.
There are many specialized schools with focuses in particular interests and areas, such as liberal arts colleges, art schools, religiously affiliated colleges, and more. Typically, these schools are private and have a higher price tag. They offer four-year specialized programs that set the stage to help you earn a bachelor’s degree.
No matter what you set out to do, just make sure you heavily research all the schools that are on your radar to see if they have the programs you’re interested in and if its price point is one that you’re comfortable with.
Apply for Student Aid and Scholarships
Regardless of whether or not you think you’ll qualify for student aid, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Form. I’ll be completely honest—it can be a bit confusing but it’s the first step in getting financial aid, so you’ve just got to take some time to get it done.
As far as scholarships go (and I can’t stress this enough), apply, apply, apply! Scholarship opportunities exist everywhere. Just do a quick Google search and you’ll see what I mean. Research what types of scholarship opportunities are online to see if any apply to you and what the application process is like. You’ll find that some scholarships are super simple (like GOLD’s, which I’ll talk more about momentarily!), whereas others are more time-consuming and have essay requirements, recommendation letters, etc.
So, I briefly mentioned the GOLD Scholarship above, and trust me, this is definitely one that you’ll want to apply for. Each year, we give away scholarship funds in the amount of $1,500 to five lucky members pursuing a college degree. Best part? There’s no essay requirement and it’s super easy to apply online in under 5 minutes. You’ll be entered to win as long as you’ve got a General membership, GOLDen Future, or Minor account. Check out all the details and apply for your shot at winning a GOLD Scholarship here.
Schedule Your Courses Wisely
Selecting your college courses may seem like an easy task, but it’s one you need to be strategic about. Carefully planning out the courses you need to take will keep you on track to graduate on time. Make sure your schedule gets all your required credits filled and avoid any classes that won’t count toward your degree. Your advisor is a key resource for you in this area.
Watch out for any classes that are offered exclusively in the spring or fall semester, not both. Don’t assume you can just take it next semester, that might not be the case, and it could cause you to fall behind and potentially delay your graduation. Also be aware of classes with prerequisites. If you don’t plan ahead by completing those required classes first, you can throw off your whole timeline and make graduating on time impossible, equaling more time and money spent on school.
You should meet with your college advisor at least once each semester to make sure you are on track for graduation. You may also discuss options about graduating early by taking more courses in the summer or taking more classes in fall/spring semesters.
Get a Part-Time Job or Internship
You probably know as well as I do (or will learn very soon) that being a college student is very time consuming. If you’ve got additional time in your schedule, find a part-time job opportunity that allows you to earn extra cash. You’ll find that many businesses are more than happy to work with you and your schedule so you can earn an income while successfully completing your classes.
I’d also highly suggest looking into internships or work study programs. You may find that some are paid, which is certainly a nice perk, but aside from that is the fact that you’ll gain knowledge, skills, and a hands-on experience in your field. Plus, it’s an excellent resume builder!
Be sure to take advantage of your college’s career center as they have many resources available to help you find part-time jobs, internships, work studies, and co-ops.
As you earn money from your part-time job, internship, or work study, be sure to set some aside that’s dedicated to paying your student debt.
Make Student Loan Payments While Still in School
Got student loans? Here’s a very important tidbit of information that you need to understand when it comes to private and federal student loans and interest. The type of loan you have can determine when interest will begin to accrue, but more often than not, you’ll find that interest starts accruing from the day your loan is disbursed to you or your school. Yep, you read that right, and let me tell you, this adds up quickly.
Some lenders allow you to defer payments or make reduced payments while in school and up to 6 months after graduating. While this is nice, and dare I say tempting, I’d strongly recommend making payments as you’re pursuing your degree if your budget allows. This is not a requirement; however, it would reduce interest charges and help you get your loans paid down faster while saving money over time.
Make Extra Payments When Possible
If you have extra money lying around and can comfortably afford to do so, consider making extra payments on your student loans. No matter how much or how little, every little bit counts. This money will go to the principal of your student loan balance, and you can make payments as often as you please without incurring any penalties. This works to your advantage because the more you pay, the less you’ll owe in interest and the earlier your loan will be paid off. It’s a win-win.
Take Advantage of Auto Pay
Give yourself more control over your money by setting up automatic payments. Auto pay is a great tool that you can use to lessen the risk of missing and forgetting monthly payments. Just set up recurring auto payments to withdraw your student loan payment on the same day of your choosing each month.
Some federal loans servicers and private lenders even offer interest rate reductions just for setting up auto payments. As with anything, just do your research first and be sure to talk to your loan provider about whether or not this is something you’d be eligible for and can take advantage of.
Only Borrow What You Need
As you prepare to leave home and head off to college for the first time, you may not be sure exactly how much money you need to borrow. You’ll want to dedicate time to research and calculate all your tuition expenses so that you don’t wind up borrowing more than you need (or requesting too little).
While you can accept the full amount that is being offered to you, you need to keep in mind that you’re responsible for paying the entire amount back—and with interest eventually added on top of it. So, it’s crucial to only borrow the amount you need to ensure that you graduate with a lower amount of student loan debt.
I hope that you’ve found these tips to be helpful, and who knows, maybe you’ll be able to put some of them to work! Remember, try not to stress over the balance that awaits and enjoy your college experience.