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5 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Paying for College

graduation, student loan debt, tuition costs
graduation, student loan debt, tuition costs

College is an exciting time. You’re off on your own and starting a new journey. It’s the very beginning of building a great career. But too often, students find out that’s not exactly how things end up. They’ve already taken on thousands of dollars in student loan debt and wind up with buyer’s remorse about the whole college experience.

How can you avoid having a similar outcome? With a little planning, you can ensure you’ll get the most out of your education before you spend a dime or take on debt.

Click to read more about the hidden costs this mom discovered when her son went off to college.

Let’s talk about five important things I wish I’d known before going off to college and can now share.

Know Where You Want to Work

A great job means different things to different people. Some might be satisfied with lower pay and a great work environment, while for others, pay is virtually everything. Research the prospects in your field of interest. You might discover that there is little chance of employment, pay is low, growth opportunities are non-existent or turnover is high.

Plus, knowing what you want to do is key to getting out of college without spending a fortune. If you switch majors, you could see extra classes and years of school, which adds up. When I started in college, I thought I wanted to be a computer science major. I hated it. I ended up switching majors my first year, but luckily only two quarters into my college career. I was able to graduate on time by simply taking some summer classes.

More on Good Jobs: 20 Companies That Help Employees Pay Off Student Loan Debt

Don’t Take on Too Much Student Loan Debt

The average student loan debt for the class of 2017 was $39,400, according to recent figures from Student Loan Hero.

Student loans aren’t a bad thing. It’s management of the loans that get students into trouble. Taking on debt unnecessarily can quickly dig you into a financial hole.

A good guide to follow is not to take on more debt than your expected first-year salary. For example, if you expect to earn $40,000 in your first year after graduation, don’t borrow more than $40,000. You can get a clear picture of salaries for professionals in your area by using tools like Glassdoor.

Do You Know? The Average Student Loan Debt in Every State

A Top-Dollar School Isn’t Always Necessary

Ivy League undergraduate tuition will cost in the neighborhood of $50,000. But is it necessary? The simple answer is no. There are many people who have gone on to successful careers without having an Ivy league education: Steve Jobs (Apple), Howard Schultz (Starbucks) and Richard Belluzzo (Quantum), just to name a few. Public or state schools provide a great education without the high cost.

To save even more money, try to knock out as many college classes in high school as possible. See if you can even take community college classes while in high school.

All that said, graduate school can be a different story, especially for MBA programs. It’s the connections to businesses and alumni network that play a big part in a graduate’s success. Many of the top graduate schools have the best connections and alumni networks, which can make their high costs worth the price.

Learn More: 25 Rich and Successful People Who Went to Community College

Send Your FAFSA in Early

Go into your first year of school knowing your financial aid is a sure thing. Need-based money is given out on a first-come, first-serve basis, so procrastinating on your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can lead to missed opportunities. Fill it out as soon as it is released at the beginning of every year.

Even if you don’t think you’re going to qualify for financial aid, filling out the FAFSA is the first step in being able to get federal student loans. Ignoring this leaves only private student loans as an option, which can be more costly and offer fewer options for repayment after graduation.

Look Net Price, Not Net Cost

Your college financial aid package may present a “net cost” figure. You might misleadingly conclude this is the total cost for the current year. For example, you see a net cost of $12,000. Great — financial aid has you covered, right? Not exactly.

Mixed into the figure are your student loans, which of course you’ll have to pay back. Also, different colleges may offer the same net cost but with different configurations.

Consider the following:

College A: $5,000 in grants/scholarships and $7,000 in loans
College B: $8,000 in grants/scholarships and $4,000 in loans

College B is the best choice from a financial aid package point of view, due to its high portion of grants/scholarships and lower amount of loans.

Quality Can Come Cheap: Best Colleges in Every State That Are Less Than $20,000 a Year

Preparation Is Key

As you can see, preparation is the key to ensuring you get the most out of your college experience. This includes knowing as much as possible about your desired career, college costs, and financial aid packages.

Spending a little bit of time up front and thinking about these key factors can save you money and heartache later in life. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Click through to read more about ways to pay off student loan debt.

This article originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com: 5 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Paying for College