Strategies for Shrinking Student Loans Before You Sign Up

You’ve probably heard a lot of frightening facts and figures about student loan debt, but don’t let the stories scare you away from pursuing higher education. Here are three strategies that help reduce the risk of ending up with a pile of debt.

Have a Plan

It’s ok if you’re not yet sure exactly what degree or certificate you want to earn, but try to avoid paying for courses until you have a clear goal. A surprising number of schools offer a variety of free educational opportunities, from auditing courses to earning a full degree. Taking a gap year while you try out free options and research potential careers can be a wise decision.

As soon as you’ve decided on a degree or certificate, find out exactly which courses are required and keep track of your progress. You don’t want to discover after the fact that you spent time and tuition on courses that didn’t help satisfy graduation requirements. Your school’s website should have a clear explanation of the exact requirements for each degree and certification (including a list of the specific courses that meet them; look for ones that count in multiple categories). If you want to take a particular course that doesn’t count towards any requirements, find out if you can audit it for free.

Look for Scholarships

Loans aren’t the only form of financial aid available for students. Scholarships don’t have to be paid back and you don’t have to be an athlete to get them. Most universities offer full and partial scholarships for academic high achievers, and there are countless smaller awards offered by businesses and civic groups. Many of these are very specialized; look for scholarships that align with your hobbies and talents, your local area, or your religion or ethnic heritage.

Consider Alternatives

It’s possible to earn a bachelor’s degree without spending four years as a full-time student. Many universities will accept credit from community colleges, especially for basic requirements such as English 101. (Again, make certain that the courses you choose will meet transfer requirements before signing up.) Many will also grant credit for AP courses you took in high school. If your university offers a foreign language placement test, a high-enough score may exempt you from the basic foreign language courses required for graduation, though it probably won’t get you course credit.

Finally, remember that many fields don’t require a bachelor’s degree; you may be able to start your chosen career with a specialized certificate, trade school experience, or an associate’s degree. It’s true that a college education is about more than job preparation, but if it’s not in the cards for you, you have plenty of opportunities to continue your education, with free online courses and public libraries being just two places to start.

You don’t need to let fear of student loan debt derail your educational plans. Investing some time and research will help you decide on a strategy that gets you where you want to go while limiting the amount of money you have to borrow.

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