By considering alternatives to the standard "four years and graduate" routine, you can find ways to cut costs and leave college with a degree debt-free.

The credit crisis has been a mixed bag for students seeking loans. The federal government has increased lending by 18.6% to $65.2 billion in the year through November. Private student loans, on the other hand, have fallen by as much as 25%, with 39 lenders having stopped making those types of loans during the same period. But ask yourself first: "Do I really need a student loan?"

Let's assume you are like most people who have little, if any, college funding from parents. And let's say you have taken steps to get financial aid. Even if you are mainly on your own in funding your college education, you can still graduate debt-free.

The key to graduating from college debt-free is to plan long before you actually choose a school. Look at the opportunities and costs. While getting your diploma debt-free will likely mean getting your education in a less traditional way, it won't make that piece of paper any less valuable. Here is what you need to consider.

Know what you want to study: The cost of college no longer makes it a good place to figure out what you want to do, especially if that means adding an extra year or two. You need to have a good idea what you want to major in long before you even step onto campus. If you don't, you are better off taking a year to work and save money or attending a community college, whose fees are more reasonable. That should give you time to take classes to get a better idea of what you want to study.

Take Advanced Placement (AP) classes in high school: The first two years of college will be spent taking general introductory classes in big auditoriums, where most of the class may be taught by students. You can get credit for many of these classes by taking AP tests in high school and receiving credit as if you had taken them at college. It also gives you the opportunity to test subject matter you think you might enjoy before you get to college.

College Level Examination Program (CLEP): CLEP is another way to test out of the many introductory classes that most students need to take in their first two years at college. CLEP offers 34 examinations that allow you to demonstrate you are college-level proficient in a subject for only $75, and most colleges accept the test for credit.

Community college: It doesn't matter where you begin your college education, only where you're attending when you get your degree. Two years of community college can save you thousands of dollars in tuition and fees. In most cases, you can transfer most, if not all, of your community-college credits to a four-year college and finish your last two years there.

Research college value: Not all colleges are the same, but they are a lot more similar than many people would have you believe. While graduating from a certain college may give you a slight advantage in landing your first job, it will have little effect after that. It will be how you perform in the company from that point on. That means the college that leaves you with the smallest amount of debt will likely be your best value.

State school: Most state universities give large discounts to students who live in the state. Even if the college's reputation isn't as strong as some others in the area, the savings can often still make it a better value, especially since most of what you get out of college is directly proportional to the effort you put in.

Live at home: The focus for saving money is often on tuition, but room and board will also cost a lot of money. This is another reason that going to a community college for the first two years can save a tremendous amount of money. While you will need to work out an arrangement with your parents that will work for all of you, this is a great way for them to help out if they can't offer financial assistance toward tuition.

Let work pick up the tab: Many employers pick up the tab for their employees' college tuition if the classes are work-related. This method is more often used with graduate or advanced courses.

Work hard: Effort equals results. You have the ability to determine how many credits you are going to take each semester, and the harder the workload, the less cost to you. If you can get your degree a year early, or even a semester early, you will save thousands of dollars. You don't have to be especially smart to take a large class load, but you do need to know how to manage your time well and work hard to achieve it.
Jeffrey Strain has been a freelance personal finance writer for the past 10 years helping people save money and get their finances in order. He currently owns and runs