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NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- For many students, getting an education comes at a big expense. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, private and federal student loan debt has collectively topped the $1 trillion mark.

The growth isn’t related to a record number of new students. Instead, data from the Department of Education reveals many existing borrowers have been unable to keep up with interest payments, and debt is growing even for many who have left school.

This frightening finding indicates just how important it is to head off to college with a financial plan. Here are some important steps students can take while in high school and college to make sure they’re not buried in debt post-graduation.

Take Advanced Placement courses in high school
Dedicated students can “bank” some credits by enrolling in (and acing) the Advanced Placement or AP courses offered at their high schools, says Ornella Grosz, author of Moneylicious: A Financial Clue For Generation Y.

These courses, sponsored by the College Board, are generally considered college level, and many universities will permit incoming students who score high enough on the standardized exam to use them as substitute for core classes.

“This is definitely a saver,” Grosz says, noting that her brother, who is two years younger, was able to gain ground on her credits-wise after acing several AP exams.

Do your homework regarding student loans
Students should begin their financial aid search by completing the free FAFSA form online to see what federal aid they are eligible for, says Brent Neiser, senior director at the National Endowment for Financial Education. For a MainStreet breakdown of the FAFSA process, click here.

If you’re pursuing private student loan options, it’s important you understand the verbage in the contracts.

“All student loans are not created equal,” Suzanna de Baca, vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial, says. “Some accrue interest while you’re still in school.”

To minimize the chances of ending up with a loan you won’t be able to pay back, de Baca suggests asking a loan officer at your local bank or a family financial adviser to go over common terms and conditions with you. You can also check out MainStreet’s round up of 10 student loan terms explained for a basic tutorial.

Research scholarships and grants
Remember, financial aid isn’t restricted to the money you get a lender or your schools of choice to give you. There are also a plethora of smaller scholarships and grants out there many students can apply for.

“The funding for college is out there, but you have to do your research,” de Baca says. For instance, she points out, many religious or faith-based organizations offer assistance to stand-out members of their congregations. Employers may also have scholarships set aside for their worker’s children.

Look for these opportunities by scouring the internet or rifling through some scholarships books. You also can check out the seven off-the-beaten path scholarships mentioned in this MainStreet round up to get started!

Think about money when making an academic decision
Wanting to go to the schools at the top of most “best” lists is certainly admirable, but you shouldn’t let status lead you to enroll in a school you really can’t afford.

“In recent decades, students have become very concerned with prestige and status,” de Baca says. “But you need to consider the trade-off.”

If a school is truly out of your price range or you don’t plan on majoring in field that is likely to net a job with a salary high enough to justify the pricey degree, it may be a good idea to opt for a state university or a community college instead.

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But only after exploring all your options
Of course, you don’t want to make your final decision before having a concrete idea of how much money each college or university may be willing to put towards your education. According to Grosz, while big name or Ivy League universities may have much higher tuition, they also tend to carry bigger endowment or scholarship funds. As such, students with stellar academic records shouldn’t write off a school they assume will be out of their cost range.

“It’s tough because you do have to pay for all your applications,” she says, before urging students to keep their options open if there is a school they are particularly interested in, since they may offer more aid than their smaller counterparts.

Go to community college for core classes
If you don’t receive the necessary aid from the school of your choice, you may want to consider spending your first few years at a community college.

“Many employers and grad schools care more about where you finish than where you start,” Neiser says. You may be able to lower the total cost of your tuition by taking some basic English, Math or History classes over the summer at a local community college as well.

“Bank some credits at a lower per average cost on your core classes,” he adds.

Take a gap year

Another potential way to minimize debt is to take a year off in between high school and college. Those truly low on funding can spend this year working in an attempt to save up enough money to attend their college of choice.

Neiser says those who really use their gap year to focus on finances may find “you haven’t spent as much money and you brought some into your life to mitigate the loans you take out later on.”

You can find more information about whether a gap year is right for you in this MainStreet analysis.

Work part-time

Working 15 to 20 hours a week while in school is another great way to subsidize pricey tuition. Again, de Baca advises students concerned with working part-time while being a full-time student to consider the tradeoff.

“Earning money during school can take a bite out of what you have to borrow,” she says, “even if it means going to school one semester longer.”
In addition to school work study programs, you can find some of the better side jobs to consider in this MainStreet round up.

Only spend loans on education-related expenses

The quickest way to get into financial trouble is to put your loan money towards every line item in your budget.

“It really is a loan, but most people look at it as a windfall,” Grosz says. Instead of succumbing to temptation, try to only put borrowed funds towards tuition, fees and education-related expenditures like books. To ensure you don’t stray, make some small changes to your general budget.

“Instead of trying to lower the dollar amount, you have to reduce the frequency,” Grosz says. For instance, you might want to only get two lattes from the campus coffee joint once a week rather than every morning.

Get smart about other costs beyond tuition

There are also ways to minimize the amount of loan money you have to put towards secondary educational expenses. For instance, buy or rent used textbooks via websites like or in lieu of buying new ones at the campus bookstore. You might also want to consider living home instead of dorming on campus. In these instances, it helps to research public transportation options to keep the costs of commuting down.

“There’s always another way of looking at things,” Neiser says. “Slow down the process and analyze costs so you don’t get caught.”