"Don't even THINK of it!" says Catherine B. Reynolds, chairman of EduCap Inc., provider of the Loan to Learn program (loantolearn.com). "Not getting a college degree is the most expensive mistake you'll ever make in your life! I can't say it often enough: A college degree is not a cost, it's an investment. And the average return on that investment is about 20 times what you've invested into it."
Reynolds says that over the course of a lifetime, a typical college graduate will make 80 percent more than someone with just a high school diploma-that's more than $1 million over a lifetime.
Help for college tuition comes in three kinds: free money (scholarships and grants), federal loans (from the government) and private loans (from banks and other lenders).
Start with the freebies
"First look at free money-things that don't need to be repaid, like grants or scholarships. There are so many scholarships out there," says Erin Korsvall, a spokesperson for Sallie Mae, a student loan company (collegeanswer.com). "Put a little effort into it. If you get $200 here, $500 there, that's money in your pocket."
Chances are, you'll still need more money for school than you'll receive through scholarships and grants. That's why there are student loans available.
Look into loans
Student loans come in two types: federal and private. Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (aka the FAFSA; get one at www.fafsa.ed.gov) will get you started on the process to apply for federal loans and grants.
Korsvall says the Stafford Loan is the most common type of federal loan. With the Stafford Loan, freshmen can borrow up to $2,625. This loan is taken out in your name. You can also take out a Perkins Loan, which is set aside for the neediest students.
If your parents want to help you with tuition, they're allowed to take out a PLUS loan, which allows parents to borrow all you need for college, including money for room, board, books and travel.
How much you can borrow in private funding from a private lender depends on your credit history and how much you need. There is no deadline when applying for private student loans. And your FAFSA doesn't count for private loans; you'll need to apply directly to the lender.
Paying it back
"Believe it or not, the people who run student loan companies are human!" says Reynolds. "We're very much aware of the fact that life can sometimes play incredibly unfair tricks on people."
Before you sign your loan agreement, discuss with your lender when you'll start paying your loans back. Will you have to pay back a little each month, or will your payments not start until you leave school for good? Also ask your lender what happens if you find you can't make the payments. Your lender can work with you to come up with a repayment plan that accounts for your problems. Another great resource is your future college. The financial aid officers there will be able to answer any of your questions.
Korsvall says the key is not to panic. Need more reassurance?
"I honestly don't think you can put a price on all the intangible benefits of going to college," Reynolds says. "From a social, intellectual and cultural standpoint, college is a mind-broadening and life-altering experience that you just shouldn't miss out on."
This article is provided by The Next Step Magazine (nextSTEPmag.com), a publication that helps students prepare for life after high school.