Prioritize the schools that are most affordable to you so you can limit your borrowing, said Rick Ross, co-founder of College Financing Group, which assists families with the college financial-aid process. If you're eyeing a college that costs $50,000 and provides the same quality of education as one that costs $25,000, don't head to the pricier institution, he said.
It's best to determine in advance how much you will spend in total on college and how much you're willing to borrow, said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. He said that every school is required to include a net price calculator on their website that provides a rough estimate of how much financial aid you would receive, given your income. And consider the field you're entering and how much you're likely to earn once you graduate. An engineering student is more likely to be able to afford higher loan payments than a social worker, for example.
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A typical guideline is not to borrow more than what you anticipate earning in your first or second year after graduation. Peter Mazareas, co-founder of Invite Education, said those considering lower-paying professions may be better off at a public institution, which is less expensive. Another option, he said, is to look to schools that offer merit aid, which doesn't need to be repaid.
Abbey Stauffer, general manager of education for NerdWallet, a personal finance website, added that students should borrow wisely, taking out only what's needed to cover tuition, fees, room and board and avoiding the temptation to max out the loan in order to have "fun money."