You’re preparing for the SATs, keeping your grades up and thinking about college application essays. Add one more thing to the list: financing your college education. Prospective and present students alike are looking for ways to manage education debt, including going to less expensive schools or participating in online learning to ease the burden.
Here are a few things to consider doing now so you’ll be ready to pay for your education, no matter how you choose to pursue it.
- Fill out the free application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA): This form from the Department of Education helps schools determine your eligibility for assistance.
- Assess savings: If you haven’t yet, discuss your parents’ plan for financing your college education. They may have started a 529 plan when you were younger. Such an account is similar to a tax-advantaged retirement plan, except the funds are earmarked for education instead. Take a look at your personal savings as well.
- Apply for scholarships: Spend as much time as possible applying for scholarship and grant money. It can be a sure-fire way to lower the cost of college, and a full ride could guarantee graduating debt-free if you keep up your good work.
- Choose schools wisely: If a top-choice school offers you no money, but another school offers you enough help to make attending almost free, what should you do? Assuming the academic elements are roughly equivalent, taking the lower-cost route is often a good bet, even if it means turning down a well-known institution. You might also consider starting at a community college or online school and transferring to your preferred college the next year, reducing the total cost for a four-year degree.
- Consider public service: Students interested in military service may have the option of joining a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program at their school, which can offer additional financial aid. After graduating, ROTC students agree to serve for a certain number of years, starting out as a junior officer. Entering public-service careers can also come with financing benefits. Nurses, teachers, police officers and public defenders, as well as those who join the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, may qualify for public service loan forgiveness (PSLF), which can reduce some forms of education debt after 10 years.
- Work: Many schools offer aid that involves working on campus part-time to earn money to help pay for school. Any summer jobs or part-time work you can pick up now can also help, assuming you funnel as much of your earnings as possible into a college fund established at a financial institution like Southeastern Credit Union.
- Loans: The average amount of education-related debt is about $30,000 for American households that carry such a burden. If you can avoid it, it’s best not to join them. Loans should be a last resort for financing a college education. If you must borrow, look for the option one with the lowest interest rate and shortest term. While this may mean higher monthly payments, your overall interest cost will be lower. Student debt is rarely forgiven in bankruptcy, so try to minimize what you borrow.
By starting your financial planning now, you may be able to avoid an instant-noodles diet at school to save on expenses. You’ll also set yourself up for a bright financial future.
Cait Klein, NerdWallet