NEW YORK (TheStreet) — America's college debt crisis is getting worse.
According to Experian, student loan costs have increased by 84% from 2008 to 2014, and 40 million consumers have an open student loan with an average balance per consumer of $29,000.
"What is a really compelling statistic is that the average person has nearly four student loans," says Michele Raneri, vice president of analytics at Experian. "Student loans are the only credit vehicle where a lender continues to extend credit year after year without knowing the person's ability or even willingness to pay. The borrower may not yet have had the chance to demonstrate positive payment behaviors, which is a criteria used in other types of lending scenarios."
Maybe, just maybe, consumers are looking at the college investment landscape the wrong way — along with many financial experts and economists. Conventional wisdom says to swallow hard and absorb college finance costs because the payoff of a diploma is so rewarding, but that deal may be overrated given all the debt college graduate accumulates.
Some experts advise instead choosing a college as you would any big consumer purchase, such as a home or car.
"Buying a college education is a lot like buying a car," says Larry Elkin, president of Palisades Hudson Financial Group. "If only one model and color will make you happy, you have no bargaining power. If you are willing to consider any vehicle that can take you where you want to go, there are many opportunities to save money. You'll get the best long-term value for your education dollar if you consider your options with an independent attitude and an open mind."
Elkin advises emphasizing value in your college search, academically and financially. Shop around, consider creative options and avoid debt, he says.
For example, Elkin advises students and families to make schools compete; most colleges do, to attract stronger students. "Apply to colleges that will covet you, and be prepared to take advantage of a good offer," Elkin says.
Another tip: Opting for an early decision, long considered a positive move for high school seniors, actually works against you, Elkin says. Early decision programs requiring potential collegians to commit to a school before getting competing offers are a benefit to college admissions offices, not students. It ruins your chance to comparison shop. "Some college out there is going to want you — and when you get there, it will become your school, and you will probably love it," he says.
Elkins is also big on taking advantage of advanced-placement credits, which you can earn in high school to help cut college costs, and starting at a smaller, less expensive school such as a community college before spending your final years at a branded college or university. "Don't pay for more college than you need," Elkin says.
Geography also matters when it comes to finding value in a college education.
"I just finished my bachelor's degree in April, and I graduated debt free," says Matt Casady, an Orem, Utah, resident. "I did two things. First, even though I'm from California, I came to school in Utah where the cost of education is actually significantly lower than most states. Then I worked summer sales jobs during three of my summers – selling pest control twice and Bible movies once – to pay for my tuition."
Living inexpensively is a good idea too. "Living at home doesn't sound like the most exciting option, but you can save a lot of money this way," says Annie Sanchez, author of the Debt Free Like Annie blog. "You could also compromise by living on campus for one year as opposed to all four years so that you get to experience dorm life."
Or take a year off and spend it earning more money to pay for school.
"Get creative with figuring out how the tuition bills will get paid," says Dan Blacharski, a spokesman at MoneyLend.net. "Take a 'gap year,' but spend it working instead of backpacking around Europe. Or if you're stuck on the idea of travel, consider spending a year attending college in one of several European countries where tuition is free or very inexpensive."