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How to pay for college when you don’t know where to start.

Graduates

By Claire Davidson, NerdWallet

As U.S. student debt surpasses $1 trillion and university enrollments soar to all-time highs, a college education has never been more sought after – or less affordable.
But going to college doesn’t always mean you have to break your budget. With some strategizing, you may qualify for more federal aid, work-study money and private scholarships to help pay for a degree that can give you a leg up financially for the rest of your life.
Here’s how:

Fill out a FAFSA form early

Last year, grants and scholarships covered 31% of the average student’s college expenses, according to a 2014 study from Sallie Mae, an education loan originator. For most families, that adds up to thousands of dollars. If you don’t want to miss out on this help, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, before the state and federal deadlines.
Applicants can start filling out this 130-question form January 1. Aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, so turn in a completed form as soon as possible.

Consider low-cost alternatives

The average 2013 graduate of a nonprofit school carried away $28,400 in debt along with a diploma, according to a 2014 study by The Institute for College Access and Success. But that doesn’t mean you have to finish school with such a heavy financial burden. Instead of looking at a university’s sticker price, study student debt ratios to find a college that might be more likely to work with your budget.
For those trying to keep costs down, in-state institutions and community colleges may be the most cost-friendly options. Some Ivy League and top-tier schools have higher acceptance rates for transfer students than freshmen, which is good news for those trying to trim costs by starting out in a less-expensive institution.

Get a job

Taking a work-study job in college might not be the most glamorous way to spend parts of your nights and weekends, but the financial benefits can be huge. Most colleges, for instance, provide resident assistants with room and board as compensation for their work. If you work in the dining hall, you may benefit from free meals in addition to a paycheck. Paid internships can open up career opportunities down the road while helping you pay your bills.

Apply for scholarships

Grants and scholarships pay for almost a third of the average student’s expenses – even more than education loans – according to Sallie Mae’s study. If you spend more time seeking scholarships, you may win more than you expect. So instead of spending hours on social media each day, use that time to write scholarship essays and fill out applications instead.

Borrow responsibly

If you have a documented financial need, you might qualify for a federal Direct Subsidized Loan. With one, the interest you owe won’t pile up while you’re in school or during the first six months after graduation. If you don’t qualify, you can still take out a Direct Unsubsidized Loan, but interest will accumulate during those periods, and it will be added to the principal balance you owe. Private lenders, like White Sands Federal Credit Union, sometimes offer lower rates than government loans, but repayment terms vary.

If you borrow, remember: You have to pay the money back. Use loans sparingly and stick to a tight budget while you’re in school. Once you graduate, focus on repaying what you owe as soon as possible. The faster you do, the less you’ll fork over in interest – and the sooner you’ll be debt-free.