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Avoid the college debt trap

For many college students, debt is a fact of life. But does it have to be?

It's not as if student loans and big credit card balances are mandatory graduation requirements. You don't have to borrow your way through university.

In fact, it's possible to graduate from college debt-free, but it does take a lot of work. And you'll have to buck a financial system that all but encourages students to dive into debt.

"The credit card people are just jumping all over them," says Gordon Wadsworth, author of Cost-Effective College: Creative Ways to Pay for College and Stay Out of Debt.

"The university people are there with student loans. They call it financial aid."

Indeed, according to the College Board, 54 percent of the $105 billion in financial aid distributed in the 2002-2003 school year was for loans.

And it's never been easier for college students to get credit cards and pile up balances. Those who used credit cards to pay for part of their education reported an average credit card balance of $3,400 at the time they left school compared to an average balance of $1,600 for all students with a credit card, according to Nellie Mae.

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Go where you are wanted
How can you avoid the student debt trap? Start by attending a school that wants you.

"Students should apply where they're looked upon as a real asset. In other words, they want you," Wadsworth says. "If you're recruited by a school, it doesn't matter if it's an Ivy League or lower league school. They're going to make sure you get in without loans.

"Find a school that wants you vs. a school that you want. I know that sounds rough. The students don't like to hear that, but the parents do."

Another great way to cut college costs is to attend a community college for two years. Earn your associate's degree at a school close to home and then transfer to a higher profile school in your junior year.

"Suppose you score all A's in those courses," Wadsworth says. "There's a possibility you could get into a big name school."

This is a great strategy for students with uncertain career goals.

"Often times college students find themselves not knowing what they want to do," says Michael Darne, director of business development at wiredscholar.

"Does it make sense for them to pay $19,000 a year at a private school as they try to figure it out?"

Does it make sense to attend a private school at all? Those hallowed ivory towers come with a hefty price tag. Attending a public university can save you a bundle.

In the 2003-2004 academic year, the average cost for tuition was $19,710 at a private university and $4,694 at a public university, according to the College Board. Earning a four-year degree would cost $60,064 more at a private college. The red, brick buildings at a state university are looking better all the time.

If you're keen to attend a public university in another state, you may want to consider establishing residency in that state before starting school. That way, you'll avoid paying out-of-state tuition charges, which can really add up.

Let's look at the undergraduate tuition costs for the 2003-2004 academic year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A North Carolina resident would pay $4,072 for tuition and fees, while an out-of-state student would pay $15,920. Over four years, an out-of-state student at UNC would end up paying an additional $47,392 in tuition and fee charges.

AP tests can save you money
Taking advanced placement courses in high school can also help knock down college tuition costs. Say you're in AP history class. If you pass the AP exam for American History, that's one less class you'll need to take freshman year at college.

"If you're on an AP course or track in high school taking the exams doesn't take that much more effort," Darne says. "And you're not going to have to pay for those three credits of World Civilization."

The more AP exams you pass, the less general education or core classes you'll need to take at university.

"Students have told me they'll be sophomores going in because they've done so well with advanced placement classes. So that's a great way to do it," Wadsworth says.

And let's not forget about scholarships. High schools students should apply early and often.

"High school students can start looking as early as their freshman year," Darne says.

As a high school student, Benjamin Kaplan won scholarships worth almost $90,000. He graduated debt-free from Harvard in 1999.

"If I could do this all over again I would have started in seventh or eighth grade," says Kaplan, who wrote How to Go to College Almost for Free.

You don't have to be a star student to land a big scholarship. One of Kaplan's biggest awards, a $17,500 scholarship, called for a 2.75 grade point average or better.

"Whether you had a 2.76 or a 3.9, it didn't matter once you passed that minimum bar," Kaplan says. "One of the big myths is you have to be an academic whiz to get these awards, and that's just not the case."

On the scholarship trail
The Web is a great way to track down scholarships. Check out individual college Web sites, and search for scholarship sources on sites such as FastWeb, College Board and Wiredscholar.com. Avoid sites that charge you to search for scholarships.

Don't overlook local sources of scholarships. Community-based awards may be smaller, but they're also easier to win. You can learn about local competitions at the public library and at the guidance office at your local high school.

Your scholarship hunt shouldn't end when you leave high school. Plenty of college scholarships are targeted toward upperclassmen and graduate students.

"It doesn't end and it doesn't have to end once you graduate from high school," Kaplan says. "No matter where you are along the educational path there's scholarship money out there for you."

And if you don't manage to land a lot of free money from scholarships, you can always earn money on your own with a job.

Some students work their way through school. They go to school when they can afford the tuition. When they can't, they take the semester off and bump up the hours at their off-campus jobs. It may take them five or six years to graduate but when they do, they'll be completely in the black.

Other students work summer jobs or part-time jobs during the school year. Some students take on work-study jobs as part of their financial aid packages.

Don't overlook co-op programs. Several hundred colleges and universities offer co-op programs that combine classes with work opportunities in a student's area of study. With some programs, a student will take classes for a semester and then work for a semester. In other programs, a student's day is divided between work and school.

Wadsworth says students can earn as much as $14,000 a year toward college tuition costs through a co-op program. It may take a co-op student an extra year to earn a bachelor's degree, but they'll have some great work experience to go along with their diploma.

"I always encourage parents to encourage their students to work. It's so productive. It does so many things," Wadsworth says.

"If you can work, help yourself out and work."

As a 25-year-old college senior, Wadsworth worked 35 hours a week at an ad agency.

"I got my best grades ever. As a matter of fact, I went to class with my suit on," he says. "I didn't have time to play. I didn't have time to be hung over every Friday and Saturday night."

Working also helps students gain valuable money management experience.

"If you're bringing money in, you're also aware of it going out as opposed to just ringing up debt on a credit card," Darne says.

Too often, college students get stuck in a when-in-doubt-borrow mentality. Their credit cards get quite a workout, and the credit card companies rack in the interest charges.

Kaplan, who scored so big on scholarships, used credit cards sparingly. He only charged what he could pay off at the end of the month. There was no way he was going to pay a card company 18 percent interest.

"You want to avoid financing college with credit cards," Kaplan says. "Financing college with high interest debt is the worst possible thing."

-- Updated: Jan. 6, 2004

 

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