Tips for getting a college degree with a little less debt

April 13, 2011 at 8:07 AM ET

We all know the advantages to going to college: It gives you a lower chance of unemployment and a higher chance of getting a well-paying job.

But we know the disadvantage too: The load of debt that often accompanies a college degree.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that student loan debt outpaced credit card debt for the first time last year, and could top a trillion dollars this year.

That’s a stunning figure, and the rising cost of college has some people wondering if it’s even worth it.

Experts say it can be, as long as you plan well for it. Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Fastweb, a website that provides scholarship information, has compiled a list of tips for minimizing student loan debt.

His first rule of thumb: The total debt from your education should be less than you expect your starting salary to be once you graduate.

Kantrowitz offers some of the more typical tips. They include saving money before college starts, living with the folks to keep expenses down, starting out at a cheaper community college and poking around for whatever scholarships you can find.

But he also offers some less common tips. Among them:

  • When considering whether to buy something using student loan money, think about whether you’d still buy it if it cost twice as much. Kantrowitz notes that with interest, something like a $10 pizza will really end up costing you $20.
  • If you can, try to pay back at least some of the interest on your loan while you’re still in school. It’ll save you money in the long run. And after you graduate, try to repay your highest-interest loan faster than you are required to.
  • Don’t switch majors or schools: Kantrowitz said people who do that are more likely to end up being saddled with more debt. Figure out what you want to study before you start.
  • And finally, graduate in four years: While the five- or even six-year plan may seem tempting, especially in the current period of high unemployment, chances are it will leave you saddled with more debt.

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