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By Hal Bundrick, NerdWallet
Moving from high school diploma to college degree takes a lot of hard work, planning – and money. Here are a few ideas on how to lower the financial burden and graduate with less student debt.
Lower fees by shortening the stay
You can pay less for college by graduating sooner. Taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high school can be the ticket. Most of these classes will provide college credit hours, meaning you can skip some courses when you get on campus and save on tuition fees. These advanced courses will look great on your admissions application, too.
Build smart money habits now
College is expensive, but it’s not just room and board and tuition that will sap your assets. Cash can fly from your wallet in all directions: collegiate merchandise, entertainment, travel – not to mention food and beverages. Plus you’ll be tempted by credit card offers and high-interest loans.
It’s best to get ahead of the game and get used to living on a budget and managing your own money. Doing this while you’re still living at home can give you room for error while you still have a safety net. Open up a checking account, use a debit card and download some smartphone apps or computer software to help you track your spending. And make it a habit to set aside some money in a savings account.
Find a free ride
Scholarships, grants and work-study programs can be the biggest way to reduce your future college debt. Getting a degree with every penny of free money available can mean the difference in graduating with a little debt or a pile of it.
The U.S. Department of Labor offers a scholarship search tool that mines 7,000 financial aid opportunities. You can search by social or ethnic affiliations, study level, award type and even by state.
You can also download the Guide to Federal Student Aid (link opens PDF) from the U.S. Department of Education that explains the entire student aid process, everything from eligibility requirements to specific federal aid program guidelines.
Make a financial aid forecast
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form you’ll hear a lot about in your senior year. It is key to obtaining all of the financial help you deserve. In the meantime, you can use an online tool called the FAFSA4caster that can offer a rough estimate of potential financial aid that you may qualify for.
When you complete the required information, the FAFSA4caster will estimate your current eligibility for federal student aid. It’s a good forecasting tool, but it’s not going to catch everything. However, it will give you a flavor of what you’ll face when you fill out the real thing.
The real deal FAFSA form is a comprehensive family financial profile that your parents will have to complete before you enroll in college. You’ll want to put this on the top of your to-do list just after the first of January during your senior year. Some federal aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so you don’t want to be late filing it.
Apply early for admission and housing, snag roommates to lower shared expenses, commit early to the university of your choice and leverage your parents’ networks for additional financial assistance and internships. When you’ve exhausted your federal loan, grant and scholarship options, look into the best possible private loans to cover the gap in college costs. All of which will help you make a smooth move from high school to higher ed.