Today's college students are paying twice as much for higher education as students paid a quarter-century ago -- and 50 percent more than students paid just four years ago, according to the State Higher Education Finance report recently released by the State Higher Education Executive Officers.
At the same time, despite a high demand for college (97 percent of Americans say having a degree or certificate beyond high school is important), three-quarters of Americans don't believe that higher education is affordable for everyone who needs it, according to a study by the Lumina Foundation.
[Explore more about paying for college.]
Although this is certainly bad news for anyone contemplating college, the good news is that according to a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, getting a degree will almost certainly pay off in a higher salary and more job security. The report, The College Advantage, has loads of great information about the benefits of earning your degree.
If you're worried about the plunge you're about to take, here are three strategies you might consider to keep your debt to a manageable level.
1. Consider community college: Tuition is typically lower than at public colleges and universities, and you can often transfer your credits to a four-year school if your goal is a bachelor's degree or higher. Many scholarships are available to students who are studying at community colleges; there are also scholarships for students transferring into four-year colleges.
2. Add cost to your selection criteria: Today's students may not have the luxury of judging a college only by academic or social fit. Adding cost to the equation will most certainly help you sleep better at night after making your decision -- and while you are paying off your loans later.
[Learn how to use college net price calculators.]
When considering cost, understand the sticker price -- but also understand what the college will offer in terms of discounts, how it will view your outside scholarships and how to make sure the institution treats those scholarships fairly. And of course, always complete the FAFSA; getting a good price may well depend on it.
3. Never stop looking and applying for scholarships: Make renewable scholarships -- those that provide a set amount each year of your studies -- your top priority, along with high-dollar awards. But don't ignore those $250 and $500 scholarships either. Many small scholarship awards can lead to a significant dent in your annual bill.
[Find places to start your scholarship search.]
Last but not least, cast your scholarship net wide. There are scholarships for everything from your major to your hobby to your physical attributes. Are you a woman more than 5 feet 10 inches tall? There's a scholarship for that.
Getting an education beyond high school is your key to security and stability; if you play it smart, you can keep it affordable too.
Janine Fugate, the recipient of numerous scholarships at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, holds a bachelor's degree from the College of Saint Benedict, Saint Joseph, Minn., and a Master of Public Affairs from the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota--Twin Cities. Fugate joined Scholarship America in 2002.