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11 Tips On Avoiding Student Loan Debt, According To An Expert In Scholarships

Student loan debt? Never heard of her.

I'm about six months away from graduating high school and going to college (woohoo!). But with college comes the costs of tuition, room and board, meal plans, and more (boohoo). But recently, my counselor introduced me to a couple of local scholarships that I can use toward my college tuition. Since then, I've been on the hunt for more local and national scholarships to apply for.

To learn more about getting scholarships and avoiding student loan debt, I talked to Kevin Ladd, Vice President of Scholarships.com, a website that helps students find scholarships. Here's what we talked about:

Remember, with all these tips, be sure to look into your college's official programs and guidelines too so you can make the most informed decision possible. 

1. Student loan debt can build up throughout your college life, so it's helpful to have some strategies to curb the accumulation.

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According to the Education Data Initiative, there are approximately 42.9 million American college graduates who have an average of $39,000 of student loan debt. But this debt isn't just from one or two years of your college career; it's an accumulation of all the money you've borrowed while being an undergrad. 

2. To start, make sure to submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) ASAP.

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Depending on your situation, choosing federal loans over private loans can help you significantly curb your student loan debt. But to qualify for government loans, you need to submit your FAFSA application. Keep in mind that some of this money is first come, first served, so try to get in your application ASAP for each year that you're in school.

3. Get good grades in high school to qualify for merit-based scholarships.

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To apply for scholarships, you don't necessarily have to demonstrate significant financial need. Although there are some scholarships that are need-based, Kevin Ladd says that a majority of them are based on eligibility, context, and essays. 

Also, some scholarships are more corporate, meaning they have no “application” process — it’s just a simple click, and you’re entered in the draw. However, because of its simplicity, there are more students that apply, leading to a decreased chance of winning. But as Ladd puts it, “I’m probably never going to make a thousand dollars a minute again in my life, so I’ll just apply for it.” 

4. Scholarship sites can be a great resource for finding scholarships that you might qualify for.

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If you don't really know where to start looking for scholarships, scholarship sites like scholarships.com can be a great option. These sites allow you to create a profile and input unique characteristics about you (zip code, career interests, etc.). Then, you'll get matched to regional and national scholarships. 

“What we really do is we take away the [scholarships] that you don’t qualify for. Instead of seeing millions and millions of scholarships, we’re really seeing 100 or 200 scholarships. It saves you a lot of time that you might have wasted looking at different things that you don’t qualify for,” Ladd explains. 

5. So, how do you maximize your chances of getting scholarships?

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The best way, Ladd says, is to look for scholarships that match your eligibility contexts. Ask yourself these questions: Am I really going to have a good chance at winning? Does it require an essay? Am I a strong essayist? How competitive is it? 

Asking yourself these questions can help you determine if the scholarship is one you can apply for and if it’s worth your time in the first place. “Be reasonable and honest with yourself as to whether you really feel like it’s a great fit,” Ladd says. 

Another thing Ladd stresses: Make sure to follow the rules. He’s been a scholarship judge, and he’s seen plenty of essays that don’t follow the word count rules. As a result, those essays don’t earn the points for that part of the rubric and can miss out on winning. “Make sure you stay within the guidelines and rules, read them, and follow them,” Ladd says. 

6. Look into work-study programs during college.

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Work-study options vary from school to school, but if your intended university or college does offer them, look into how you can get involved! Work-study is essentially a way to earn money while you're in school. Kevin says that these jobs can vary from on-campus to off-campus jobs, so check your college website to see if a program like this exists.

7. Think about going to a community college for two years and then transferring to a state school or private college.

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This option could be great for those who are still on the fence about which college they want to go to and who may not be able to afford their dream school right now. Attending a community college for two years could also let you get your general education courses out of the way, meaning that you'll have fewer credits to enroll in once you transfer. Fewer credits = less money to pay. 

As Ladd wisely sums up, "For those two years, I'm only spending 3 or 4 grand a year instead of 30 or 40 grand a year. A lot of schools really like a transfer student, because they can see what your work ethic is as an independent student and as an adult." 

8. Explore your room, board, and transportation options.

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Honestly, I was super shocked after seeing the room and board cost for various universities — I didn't know living in a dorm would be so expensive! But there are so many other room and board options you can explore in college. While that dorm life may look fun and glamorous, you might want to spend your money on other things or save it. Ladd suggests moving in with friends and splitting the cost of rent. 

Ladd also points out another important part of the college experience: the food. "The cafeteria food might be awful. And why should I pay $4,000 a year for awful food when I'm happy just to eat whatever I pick up at the supermarket for cheap and share with roommates? All those things are part of the calculation," he says. 

9. Take a gap year to assess your financial situations.

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A gap year can be useful if you're unsure about whether or not you actually want to go to college and if you want to save some more money before enrolling. Most colleges and universities will let you take a gap year if you meet certain requirements, but you should always check your specific college's guidelines on the official website. 

Speaking from his personal experiences, Ladd says he's "a big, big fan of taking a gap year." He took a gap year before his first year of college and spent most of his year working part-time jobs. "I realized what working for minimum wage feels like, and instead of spending money that year on tuition or whatever, I was saving money. I think life experience is every bit as valuable, if not more so, than academic endeavor," he says. 

10. Dual enroll in community college classes during high school to earn credits.

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If you have the time and ability to dual enroll in community college while in high school, Ladd says it's a great option to get certain credits out of the way. Most schools will have a dual enrollment program with a community college, so check your high school to see if you can enroll in it. 

In some schools, there are certain general education courses you need to take even before taking classes on your major, so taking these classes in high school could help you during college. "If you get enough credits, you might save a semester that you have to go to school, or even a year, depending on how early you started, how many classes you can complete. You could be one of those people who graduate in three years," Ladd says. 

11. Finally, take advantage of the summer before your freshman year of college to work part-time jobs.

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Ladd points out that you could earn a lot of money before you actually enroll in college and use that money toward your tuition. Ladd says, "It's all about making choices and priorities. You can have a $1,200 phone, or you could have a whole year's worth of books and supplies."

I honestly did not know about work-study programs before hearing about them from Ladd, so I'm definitely planning to look into that when I get on campus. Plus, #2, #4, and #11 are certainly on my to-do list for this year.

Do you have any other ideas on avoiding student loan debt that weren't on the list? Let me know in the comments!

And for more stories about life and money, check out the rest of our personal finance posts