How to Keep College Borrowing in Check

Use these strategies to take only what you need to pay for college.

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Mrs. Cranks America history ClassGTCHS.JPG
Social studies teacher Cleo Crank leads students through a lesson in her American history class.

Student loans are a fact of life for many families. But now that student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt in the U.S., more families may be aware of the need to keep college costs and borrowing to a minimum.

JULIE:

Since the cost of college is rising faster than inflation—and has been for some time—families are having to employ an "all of the above" strategy for paying for, and saving on, college costs. Here are a couple of strategies that can help.

1. Don't borrow for the experiences of college: Using student loans to finance your child's education may be a smart thing to do. A recent study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that college graduates are less likely to be unemployed than high school graduates. And college graduates will earn $650,000 more than typical high school graduates, according to the Pew Research Center.

But, while borrowing money to earn a degree may be a good thing, borrowing money for the experiences of college—living on campus, studying abroad, or belonging to a fraternity or sorority—is less of a good bet.

Those things may enrich your child's college experience, but they aren't likely to flow to the bottom line.

Work with your student to prioritize the experiences of college that are important to him or her. Using that list, decide which can be skipped or paid for with current cash on hand.

You might also want to engage in a tradeoff exercise, such as choosing a less expensive school in order to afford more of the extras.

[Consider 10 ways to save on college costs.]

2. Don't be afraid to go undecided: If your child is truly undecided about his or her major, encourage him to declare that from the start.

An adviser can help your undecided student to keep all options open by putting him or her in classes that will apply to multiple fields of study.

If your undecided child feels pressured to choose a major early, however, he or she may be more likely to change majors—perhaps more than once—and may accrue credits that don't apply to the major ultimately chosen. That could result in spending a longer time in school.

[Check out 9 hot college majors.]

LINDSEY:

Borrowing money for college can be a daunting prospect for a young college student. Like my mom said, borrowing for academic costs is, at times, necessary, but borrowing for the "extras" should be avoided if possible.

Here are some ways I've been able to help my parents avoid borrowing for these additional costs.

1. Pay as you go: If you're tempted to borrow money in order to do things like live in a nicer apartment or join a Greek organization, try taking responsibility for those costs on a month-to-month basis.

If you're really committed to doing these things, get a part-time job and gain real-world experience by budgeting money to use on those costs. It will be good practice for when you graduate, when you have to allot money to pay rent, a car payment, and other bills.

[Find out how to much to borrow for college.]

2. Work closely with your adviser: My mom and I have talked a lot about the rising costs of a college education. One of the ways students can control these costs is simply by making sure they stay on track to graduate in four years—or, better yet, by figuring out a way to graduate a year or a semester early.

That being said, I recently spoke with a financial adviser who said the traditional four year college guideline might be outdated. He said it is sometimes better to work through college in five or six years—paying as you go—than it is to borrow thousands of dollars to graduate in four.

Find out which plan is best for you and stick to it in order to reduce your dependence on loans.