It shouldn’t come as a great surprise that one way to avoid college debt is by choosing an institution that fits your budget and a major that promises a job that pays well.
But now you can run the numbers and realize that, for example, your bachelor’s degree in music from the University of New Haven offers a median first-year salary of $21,700 compared to the typical $27,000 in debt that accompanies the diploma. Ouch.
Those cheery numbers come courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education’s updated College Scorecard, which allows students to compare colleges by costs, admissions and results. And now the site lets you customize a search by potential debt compared to earnings based on their field of study and institution.
But even if you’re comparing colleges and their debt-to-income ratios, there are plenty of ways to earn your tassel with less debt hassle regardless of your major. Read on for a little higher education in how to avoid college debt.
5 Ways to Avoid College Debt
Check out these five strategies for avoiding student loan debt before you get your diploma, no matter where you go to college or what your major may be.
1. Apply for Financial Aid
If you think financial aid ends with loans, think again. Although the FAFSA and CSS Profiles are essential when applying for student loans, they can also help you qualify for grants and scholarships — aka free money you don’t have to repay — as well as work-study opportunities.
Each college has its own deadline for its financial aid applications, so make sure you ask about the due date for every school you’re considering.
2. Know When to Say No to Money
Simply put, student loans are designed to cover the cost of college. The College Scorecard defines those costs as tuition, living costs, books and fees — minus the average grants and scholarships you could receive.
But what is “living costs” — is it just your dorm room and basic meal plans? Or does it include a stress-relieving night out and a car to get you across campus? It’s highly likely that you’ll be approved for loans that cover much more than books and a dorm room, but that doesn’t mean you should take everything that’s offered. By making a budget for college before you accept unnecessary loans, you’ll end up with less debt when you graduate.
3. Get a Job
Every little bit helps. Repeat this phrase to yourself when you deposit that minimum wage paycheck from your barista job. But you can also get creative with a student job — if you have the brains, you can make money as a tutor, or if you love the outdoors, dive into a lifeguard gig at the local pool.
Your minimum wage job alone probably won’t get you out of college debt free. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, while the average cost of a public, four-year degree is $80,661.44.
And regardless of whether your major is destined to make you rich, you can get a leg up on the competition — and increase your post-graduate earning potential — by applying for an internship within your field of study.
If you’d rather just hang out in your dorm, check out work-from-home job opportunities you can do in your pajamas.
4. Budget for the Hidden Costs
The Scorecard provides the official numbers from your chosen institution, but there are plenty of other hidden college costs. Even if you’re choosing a major that has high earning potential — like aviation or engineering — you should investigate whether there are additional costs due to expensive equipment or materials on top of your tuition and regular fees.
And if you choose a university in a large city, you could be paying more for living expenses — but you could offset some costs by using public transportation that might not be available to your country cousins.
5. Start Paying Before Your Grace Period Ends
If you do take out federal student loans, you can save a bundle on interest by paying down the interest (and the loans, if you can) while you’re still in college.
By paying off your interest before your grace period ends, you’ll avoid an event known as interest capitalization. That’s the moment when your interest balance gets lumped into your principal balance and you start getting charged interest on the total amount.
Although the College Scorecard can give you a starting point for figuring out your debt load compared to your potential earnings, you still have the power to avoid debt and graduate a winner.
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer/editor at The Penny Hoarder. Read her bio and other work here, then catch her on Twitter @TiffanyWendeln.