The goal, he added, is to keep total student-loan debt at graduation below your annual starting salary, thus enabling you to pay it off in 10 years or less.
Anything higher and you'll likely struggle to repay what you owe and will need alternate repayment plans. That in turn impacts your ability to consider graduate school.
Students who graduate debt-free are twice as likely as their debt-laden peers to attend a graduate or professional school, Kantrowitz explained.
That's why students and parents need to understand how important it is to properly fill out and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It's the form that students complete to document their financial ability to pay for college. What's more, the U.S. Department of Education uses the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for federal student aid, including low-cost loans, grants and work study. The FAFSA may also determine your eligibility for state and school aid as well.
To keep costs in check, students should maintain a 3.5 grade point average or higher to maximize scholarship opportunities and, where possible, take college-equivalent classes while still in high school, said Allan Katz, a certified financial planner and president of Comprehensive Wealth Management Group.