$40,000 per year. $50,000 per year. The price of college seems to keep escalating, but are these sticker prices what we should really expect to pay for a college degree?

It’s complicated, of course, but much like the housing bubble, the currently developing student loan bubble isn’t something you must participate in. In fact, if you play the game correctly, you can walk away with a degree with minimum to no student loans at all.

Let’s assume for a moment that your parents can’t pay for your college degree. There aren’t many parents who have $200,000 hidden away for college expenses regardless of actual income level. That means everyone needs help with college costs, and these strategies are readily available to every student. In fact, these are simple truths all college-bound students and their families should know.

Start Early

Virtually all high schools have some sort of AP or IB program in place to give kids a head’s start on college hours. Savvy students use these programs to earn up to a full year of college credit. Sure it takes a lot of work and studying while you’re in high school, but taking six tests and doing some extra homework your senior year is far better than shelling out an extra $40,000 a year later.

If your school doesn’t offer AP courses or you don’t qualify for those, look at the possibility of dual enrollment in a local community college. Many colleges offer programs where high school juniors and seniors can earn college hours while taking the basics like English and History before they graduate from high school. Best of all, these programs are covered by public school costs. Even if you have to pay for the books, that’s a far cry less than standard tuition rates you’ll be paying next year.

Start Small

While we all love the idea of rushing off to a dorm and spending four years at the university of our choice, if that is going to cost you well over $100,000 in student loan debt, is it worth it? Live at home nearby with friends for a few years and try the community college in your area. You can easily knock out the first two years of coursework, pay for it with a part-time job and cut your student loans in half when you do transfer into the bigger schools.

If you’d rather not live at home, there are often community colleges near big campuses. Find a few roommates and opt for a community college education the first few years while soaking up the nightlife and campus experience before transferring to the bigger school and spending more.

Stay Local

The price tags that are often touted in the media are for private universities. Harvard, Yale and Princeton may be worth the student loan debt if you’re able to make the right connections and use those connections to land a prestigious job right away. (It’s the connections that count in most Ivy schools, not the actual education, which isn’t much superior to any other school.)

But unless you have a burning desire to attend a smaller private school in your state, you might be better off heading to a public university in your state. While a large university can cost non-residents close to $30,000 per year generally, residents often pay less than $8,000 per year in tuition. That would add up $32,000 – a far cry from $200,000 to work off down the road.

Work Smarter

Finally, once you’ve decided on a route for school, get started and stay engaged. You want to move through the educational process as quickly as possible. While this might kill some of your party spirit, a year of parties and football games isn’t worth $40,000 because you took five years instead of four.

Choose your degree carefully so that you’re learning a skill that can be utilized once you graduate – there is still significant demand for graduates in certain fields. Do your research and find a good fit for your interests that also makes you employable. Strongly consider summer school or even dual enrollment at a community college to knock out as many basics as possible in your first year – possibly graduating in as little as three years.

People go to college for many reasons, but the common theme today is that nobody warned these graduates that a degree in basket weaving that ran up $120,000 in student loans wasn’t a good idea. Student loans of some kind are almost inevitable for most would-be college students today. But you don’t need the join the ranks of those who didn’t have a clue – work smarter, faster and earlier and you’ll find your student loan debt isn’t much of a burden at all.

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