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Student loan debt—whether from federal or private student loans—is often a reality for students who are pursuing a higher education. Over the past decade, the amount of debt carried by graduating students has more than doubled! This is largely due to a parallel trend in the rising cost of tuition: it simply costs more now than it did a decade ago. Plus, recent changes in laws regulating federal student loans, including the Stafford Loan, may mean even more money coming out of your pocket in the years to come.

College loan fees are on the rise

According to a recent report by the State Public Interest Research Group, tuition fees across the country have risen steadily. On average, you’ll pay 33 percent more for a public school and 44 percent more for a private school than you would have if you had been born just 10 years earlier! Mom and dad are more likely to take a hit in their pocketbooks as well; the average household income has only increased by 12 percent during the same period.

As a result of these changes, you may need to rely on interest-bearing loans to get through school. This is true even for wealthy families: 44 percent of families with six-figure incomes are borrowing money for college—a rate that has quadrupled in 10 years! According to the National Association on Admission Counseling (NACAC), while need-based borrowing increased by 44 percent, non-need-based borrowing increased by a whopping 229 percent! Economic forecasters predict that these trends are likely to continue.

A college loan can be appropriate, but don’t get trapped!

You’ll need to be a savvy borrower to avoid falling into the debt trap. Obviously, compare school tuitions, but also be proactive and seek out information from your financial aid office to assist you in making good borrowing choices. Borrow only what you need. Utilizing college loans solely for school costs—not a new wardrobe—can significantly decrease the amount of college loan money you’ll need!

You should also be diligent about searching for alternative forms of student aid in the forms of scholarships and private grants. In this day and age, you have a wealth of online information at your fingertips. That access can help you find scholarships and grants that match your profile, and you may qualify for some of them with only a little hard work.

Do not use your credit cards as a college loan

Once you get to school, you will be bombarded by the marketing tactics of credit card companies who seek out students who are willing to take on consumer debt to get by. These tactics are incredibly successful, as demonstrated by the amount of debt the average college senior carries upon graduation—$16,928 in student loans, and an additional $3,100 in high-interest credit card debt!

Most students seriously underestimate the amount of time and money it will take them to pay off these debts. Before signing up for any credit cards, make sure you do some research and fully understand how they work.

Other strategies that can help you avoid a college loan

In addition to utilizing scholarship searches, there are other ways to cut your college costs. Earning college credits while still in high school or taking CLEP exams as a college freshman or sophomore may help you to earn credits that could shave off a significant amount of tuition. Additionally, the Armed Forces offer college assistance in exchange for public service commitments under the GI Bill.

A college loan is a reality for most students

Laws that came into effect July 1, 2006, resulted in the availability of college loan rates of 6.8 percent (or less in some cases) that are “fixed,” meaning they will not go up or down when the prime rate changes. Be sure to check the rates for both federal and private student loans, and pay attention to the loan’s total cost.

In reality, you will most likely have to borrow some amount of money to pay for college. It is important for you to be a smart borrower. Be sure to investigate the federal student loans, including the Stafford Loan and, if you have “exceptional” financial need, the Perkins Loan. If, early on, you arm yourself with knowledge about how to manage debt and credit, it’s much more likely that what you borrow will be a sound investment in your future success.