College students are receiving more than $1.6 trillion in federal aid in 2022, and nearly 20 percent of students with federal loans are in default. How can a student attain a degree without racking up debt? Laura Hendrix, associate professor of personal finance and family resource management for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, says research and planning are critical for the college-bound.

Compare costs

“Consider the cost of college classes at different locations,” she said. “Some students have the opportunity to take concurrent credit classes in high school – those are college credits that you won’t have to pay for later on.”

Hendrix said community colleges often cost less than other institutions and can provide basic course credits that can be transferred to other colleges and universities. Public schools are often less expensive than private schools.

“Grants and scholarships may offset the cost of more expensive schools so be sure to check on those,” she said.

Start a fund

Hendrix said students are three times more likely to attend college and more likely to graduate if there is a savings fund, even if it’s a small amount. She suggests designating a separate savings account or opening an Arkansas 529, which is similar to an IRA except for college savings. Seek grants and scholarships – It sounds like a no-brainer, but apply for grants and scholarships.

“Fill out the FAFSA (https://studentaid.gov/h/apply-for -aid/fafsa) and talk to your high school counselor,” Hendrix said. “Call or visit your college financial aid office. Seek grants and scholarships before applying for loans.”

Get a job

It’s often hard to juggle both studies and a job, but it may help keep a student’s debt load at bay.

“Supplement your income with work on or off campus,” Hendrix said. “Many schools offer work-study programs where students receive pay for part-time work. Working part-time on or off campus can not only provide income but can also provide experience to add to a future resume.”

Make good grades

Students with higher grade point averages usually qualify for more scholarship money.

“Many scholarships require students maintain a certain GPA to keep the scholarship,” Hendrix said. “Working hard in school can pay off in many ways. Go to class. Do the homework. Study. Do your best.”

Limit borrowing

“If you do use student loans, borrow as little as possible,” she said. “Choose federal student loans over private loans.”

Cut costs

“Smart spending decisions can significantly reduce college costs,” Hendrix said, adding that living at home and attending school in one’s home state can be cost-savers.

Have a repayment plan

Hendrix urges students to look beyond their college years.

“Think about your future. What is the average starting income for the job you may have based on your college degree?” she said. “Will you earn enough income to pay your rent, utilities, car payment, and a student loan payment? It can be difficult starting out on your own after college and student loans can make it even more challenging.”

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