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Four steps to a debt-free college degree

After the high of tossing your graduation cap into the air, having to pay off your student loan debt can bring you back down to reality in a hurry. Seven in 10 college seniors graduate with an average of $29,400 in student loan debt, according to the Institute for College Access & Success. Paying down this debt can be overwhelming for recent grads who are juggling a limited budget on a starting salary.

To optimize your chances for a debt-free college degree, Rachel Cruze, author of “Smart Money Smart Kids,” says making a concerted effort to plan out your finances in high school and throughout college will pay off in big ways.

Choose a college you can afford

Racking up student debt now and worrying about costs later will be a huge setback for adulthood, says Cruze. “It’s not worth it in the long-run. It doesn’t matter where you go to college, it just matters that you graduate debt-free,” she says.

If going to an expensive private school is important to you, consider attending a community college for the first year or two for your pre-requisites and then transferring the credits to the school of your choice.

Seek out all opportunities for financial aid

During your junior and senior years of high school, it’s important to establish a good rapport with your guidance counselors for advice on where to find scholarships and grants. Consider it a part-time job, because every little bit helps. The amount of work you put in now can mean big savings later.

Be proactive and search the internet for scholarships, but also look into businesses within your local community that are offering scholarships. “If you apply for that scholarship or grant for $200 and you get it, then you just made $200 in 30 minutes. That’s better than any job you can have,” Cruze says.

Work your way through school

Studies have shown that if the average college student works 20 hours a week, they can pay their way through an in-state school. Employers perk up when they see that you’re dedicated not only to getting good grades, but also to working during your college years, says Cruze.

“What’s important is your work ethic and that you’re doing the work you need to do to get ahead. That’s what employers see,” Cruze says.

Ask your parents for help

The decisions you make about your education and finances will impact your life for years to come. It's not ideal to make these huge financial decisions on your own. Reach out to your parents and ask them to help you look for scholarships so that you can apply for all the opportunities out there.