Federal student loans also can be capped at 15 percent of a student's "discretionary income." That's defined as earnings above 150 percent of the poverty line. For 2011, discretionary income would include earnings above $16,335 for a family of one, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Earn less than $16,335, and the federal government won't charge you anything for your student loan as long as your income stays below that threshold.
A double bonus is that students who make consecutive loan payments for 25 years will have their debt forgiven, according to the Oakland, Calif.-based Project on Student Debt. The time frame is reduced to 10 years for students who work in public-service professions such as teaching or social work after graduation.
Despite the tremendous potential savings, research shows that few students take advantage of the program. A White House fact sheet from October says that only about 1.3 percent of students with federal loans opt for income-based repayment.
Fight the hikes
Thanks to state budget cuts, tuition and fees at the average two- and four-year public institutions rose by about 7 percent this year, according to the College Board in New York. But in states such as Florida and California, prices at undergraduate state universities rose by 15 percent or more.
"The immediate kind of response to (tuition hikes) is to put it on a credit card or to look to their parents to try to get them to take a loan out," says Fuentes-Michel.
The problem is that parents frequently can't take on additional debt, and credit card interest rates are substantially higher than those of federal student loans. Instead of falling in the plastic trap, Fuentes-Michel recommends that students look to federal loans, private scholarships and part-time employment for college financing.
Save the right way
One of the strangest loopholes of financial aid is that how you save can impact your aid just as much as how much you save.
"Money put into a student's name is not the place where you want to park it," says Forster. "A student's assets and income (are) counted much higher than a parent's."
While assets saved in a parent's name can subtract up to 6 cents for every dollar from your federal need-based scholarships and grants package, every dollar of student assets takes away 20 cents, according to the White House's National Economic Council. Money saved in a grandparent's or relative's name won't count at all. However, 529 plans are one exception. Funds stored in a 529 plan in the student's name count as parental assets, according to FinAid.org, the college financing resources website.
Reconsider 529 college savings plans
Many 529 plans lost value when the market dipped in 2008, but they're coming back -- this time with more conservative investment options. In the past two years, states including Nebraska and Indiana have added financial options insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. that allow parents to access 529 tax incentives without taking any market risks.
On top of providing federal tax-free growth, certain states also provide state tax incentives and matching grants to encourage account holders to save.