Tips to avoid a mountain of college debt

February 22, 2013 3:03:22 PM PST
It's that time of year when college costs are a big concern for many parents. How can you put a child or a couple of children through college without running up a mountain of debt?

The key is to tap all the financial resources available to you, and it may mean altering your college plans, and if you aren't thinking about this already, you'd better get going.

Lauren Elkin has been crunching the numbers. Her daughter, Samantha, is going to college next year.

"You choke when you look at the price tag," Elkin said.

It's especially hard to swallow when Samantha -- like so many -- doesn't have a solid career choice yet.

"I really like everything psychology has to offer," said Samantha Elkin. "And I like business, I like law. I also like accounting."

What neither one of them likes is running up a huge debt to pay for it.

ABC 7 turned to college aid advisor Joseph Orsolini. His first advice: Get started now.

"It's not first-come, first-served, but it's like coming in to dinner late: you get what's left over," Orsolini said.

So, get going on step one: Fill out the FAFSA form online. That's the free application for federal student aid. It's the gateway to federal student grants and federally-backed student loans.

Next, search for national and local scholarships . There are organizations giving money away. Your local high school should have the lists. Apply.

Then, Orsolini suggests students look at private schools, because he believes those schools are more willing to discount their tuition costs.

And, parents, if you're paying for it, stay in the driver's seat.

"Too often, we let the kids pick the schools, and then it's up to the parents to figure out how to pay for it," said Orsolini. " We don't do that with cars. We don't drop them off at the sports car dealership, the Ferrari dealership."

And once you get financial offers from your colleges, negotiate, or as colleges prefer to call it, appeal.

"If they're not willing to work with me, and to make it affordable to me, guess what? We're heading right down the street to Oakton Community College," said Lauren Elkin.

Community college was the choice for Matt Vega.

"I wasn't sure how I was going to pay for it," said Vega.

Vega is now finishing his degree at Wheaton College after starting at a community college -- no junior college stigma for him.

"No one's going to care about that," said Vega. "They're just going to say, 'You're a graduate of a four-year institution.' "

As Vega notes, his diploma will be from Wheaton, not his community college.

Here's some other suggestions:

  • live at home and commute to a local college,
  • get a part-time job,
  • and if you go to community college - keep your focus on a 4-year degree.

Make sure your community college course credits will be accepted by the four-year college you eventually plan to attend.