Dear Dr. Linda,

When I picked up my copy of next month’s Consumer Reports, I noticed the bright red cover with these words in bold white: “I Kind of Ruined My Life by Going to College.” I quickly opened to page 28 and read the article. It’s about the debt college kids get into because of going to college. I’m a high school guidance counselor and work every day with kids who want to go to college and who should go to college. I know kids end up in debt, but without college they may have worse debt. Do you have any thoughts on this topic?

Marjorie L.

Sign Up for E-News

Dear Marjorie L.,

I guess the question is: “Is it worth going into debt to get a college degree?”

It’s unfortunate that the cost of college is this high, making it almost impossible for some students to even think about it. But, it has been found that college graduates for the most part, earn more during their lifetime than people who did not go to college. Of course, there’s always those stories about someone who never went to college and became a billionaire. Unfortunately, they’re few and far between.

So, how does a student go to college, who can’t afford it, and not end up in too much debt?

1. Don’t make going to college your career. Students need to try to spend as little money as possible in the shortest amount of time. In general a four-year degree, a bachelor’s degree, takes just that, four years. If the student is interested in a specific major, then they’ll probably finish in four years. However, most students enter college and don’t know what they want to major in. So unfortunately, they spend five or six years in college instead of the usual four years. This costs money. The more time in college means more debt.

The good news is that the first two years in a four-year college are usually devoted to liberal arts courses. Students are immersed in a variety of subjects at the same time they’re maturing. For the most part, a student will fall in love with a particular area of interest during those first two years. This is good because a student doesn’t have to declare a major until the end of the second year of college. Knowing this, to save money, some students go to their local community college during that time and finish their last two years at a four year college. Some students even push their decision a little more by taking off a year between high school and college, called a “gap year,” to give their brain a little more time to mature and sort out their goals before entering college.

If at the end of two years, they’re still undecided, they need to meet with a college advisor to steer them in the right direction. Staying in college without a goal simply builds up more debt.

2. Don’t think that you must go to a state school. Students and their families need to look at all colleges, not just state schools, if the cost of college is of concern. Believe it or not, some private or out-of-state colleges are less expensive than some of the in-state schools. Some private colleges may offer a financial aid package that reduces the cost to under a state school. Be sure though, that the package the college offers you is good for the four years, even if tuition goes up and when your grades go down.

3. See what money is out there for you. Students must ask their school counselors about the free FAFAS4 application from the Department of Education to see what they’re eligible for. This application needs to be completed each year.

Dr. Linda