I was incredibly fortunate that my parents could afford to pay for my college education outright and did so without hesitation. I knew how lucky I was at the time, but now, as a parent myself, I can say with extreme certainty that the reality of college expenses for families today looks vastly different than they did even 15 years ago. Student loan debt in the U.S. has skyrocketed to unprecedented levels, surpassing $1.7 trillion, making it the second-largest consumer debt category after mortgages. It’s a staggering figure, and its impact is far-reaching, impacting not only individual borrowers but also the economy at large.

The burden of student loan debt extends well beyond graduation, often hindering major life milestones such as buying a home, starting a family, or pursuing entrepreneurial endeavors. With soaring interest rates and diminishing financial aid options, the weight of debt becomes an anchor that stifles ambition and hampers financial freedom for an entire generation.

About $37,650

was the average federal student loan debt in the U.S. in June 2023.

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A real parent’s perspective

When my stepdaughter unexpectedly moved into our household at the beginning of her senior year, the prospect of helping her plan for a post-high school path fell squarely on my and my husband’s shoulders. She knew the answers to some of our questions immediately — she wants to be a nurse, she’d like to start out at a local community college, and then transfer to a university. She’s also interested in business and entrepreneurship and is open to exploring alternatives to traditional forms of higher education. The biggest question of them all, though, was, who’s paying for this? And how?

My husband and I have worked very hard to keep our debts very minimal, maintain excellent credit, and earn a living that allows our family to live comfortably. In the process of building our life together, we’ve yet to put any money aside specifically for our children’s education. It’s a financial goal we’re still working toward, but one thing has always been clear — we do not want our kids saddled with insurmountable student loan debt. There must be a better way.

And we know we’re not alone. Yes, saving for college now is the best way to prevent student loan debt for your kids in the future. But what happens when you can’t or haven’t?

Some people turn to student loans for college costs, but this approach can lead to high-interest rates and increased financial strain. If you struggle with student loan debt or have other debt to handle before co-signing on a loan for your child, it may be worth considering consolidating your loans to pay down your debt faster.

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Walking through this process with my stepdaughter has unearthed a complex world of options when it comes to paying for college. Surprisingly, we’ve learned that there are multiple paths to paying for higher education — and they don’t require taking on high-interest loans.

Whether you have a teenager preparing to head off to college soon or you have younger children who will get there one day, below are some strategies to help prepare for this major life shift so that student debt never has to enter the equation

1. Talk about the future early and often

Start talking to your kids about career aspirations and higher education during middle or early high school years. Encourage them to explore various professions through internships, job shadowing, or mentorship programs. For instance, setting up informational interviews with professionals in fields of interest can offer valuable insights and give them a real, hands-on look into their potential future. These steps help them understand the why behind the costs.

Take advantage of college fairs, campus tours, and open houses. Exploring different campuses and attending information sessions can help them start to envision their future in various academic settings — and determine whether or not they even want that lifestyle at all. Additionally, online resources like virtual campus tours or webinars are great for looking at schools in areas that aren’t local to you but may be more cost-effective in the long run.

2. Research scholarships and grants

In the case of my stepdaughter, her high school has been a fantastic resource for understanding what scholarships and grants are available for her. Often, schools compile lists of available scholarships or grants specific to their students. Teens can also seek recommendations and advice from teachers, coaches, or mentors who might know of lesser-known opportunities.

Check with local community organizations, religious groups, or cultural associations that might offer scholarships or grants. These entities often have funding earmarked for students within their community or affiliated networks. Attending community events, volunteering, or becoming active members can also be a great resume booster for teens.

Does your workplace offer student scholarships? Ask! Private companies, local businesses, or professional organizations related to your child’s field of interest may also be a great resource. Many corporations offer scholarships to employees’ children or support educational initiatives within their communities. Researching corporate-sponsored programs and applying early can significantly bolster financial aid.

3. Consider dual enrollment or community college

My stepdaughter’s high school offers dual credit courses in partnership with our local community colleges, and it’s free. These programs allow students to earn college credits while still in high school, reducing the overall time and cost spent on a degree. Additionally, these credits can often transfer to various institutions, providing flexibility in future academic pursuits.

There are plenty of economic advantages to starting at a community college, including lower tuition fees, but in addition, some students prefer the smaller class sizes and more personalized attention offered. It’s usually less expensive to fulfill general education requirements at a reduced cost before transferring to a four-year university. I did this myself, and while my parents did foot the bill, it was a significantly lighter hit to their bank account, thanks to this choice.

Research transfer agreements between community colleges and four-year institutions that your child is interested in. Some community colleges have established partnerships that guarantee admission or facilitate credit transfers to specific universities upon completing an associate’s degree.

4. Explore work-study programs

On-campus work-study programs offered by universities are an amazing and often under-utilized way to pay for a college education. These programs often provide part-time employment opportunities within the institution, allowing students to earn money to cover educational expenses while gaining valuable experience related to their field of study.

There are also cooperative education programs in various fields that alternate periods of academic study with periods of paid work experience. These programs, offered by some universities, integrate classroom learning with practical work, providing a valuable blend of theoretical knowledge and real-world application. Seeking internships within their industry of interest during summers or breaks is another way to help gain some funding for college classes. Many companies offer internships for students pursuing specific fields, providing hands-on experience and potential financial assistance through stipends or hourly wages.

5. Evaluate alternative education paths

Vocational training programs that offer certificates or diplomas in high-demand fields like healthcare, IT, or skilled trades are an excellent option for students after graduating high school. These programs often have shorter durations and lower costs than traditional college degrees, leading to careers with solid earning potential. Encouraging your child to explore apprenticeships or hands-on training in these fields can provide a solid foundation for their future. For example, my stepdaughter is considering earning her massage therapy license in a one-year program right after graduation. This will potentially allow her to work a flexible job while she’s in college to earn money that can be used to fund her nursing education.

Online courses or workshops focused on entrepreneurship, business management, or niche skill development are also a way to equip young adults with practical skills to start their own ventures that could fund their higher education goals. Some programs offer a blend of online coursework and workshops, allowing flexibility while ensuring hands-on learning experiences crucial for certain professions. To get even more bang for your buck, encourage your child to explore platforms that offer specialized training tailored to emerging industries or technology sectors.

6. Promote financial literacy

Real-life budgeting exercises related to college expenses, such as creating a budget for tuition, books, housing, and other essentials, can help you and your teen learn together how much college will cost — and how it will be paid for. You can use tools like budgeting apps or online platforms designed for students to understand the financial implications of their decisions. They can see first-hand the financials and learn how everything works.

In our discussions with my stepdaughter, we explained the nuances of student loans, emphasizing the importance of borrowing only what’s necessary and exploring federal loan options with lower interest rates and flexible repayment plans. We explained how interest accrues and the long-term impact of different borrowing scenarios. It’s not that she won’t borrow anything — she very well might decide to — but as parents, we decided to give her the full picture so that she understands what she’s potentially signing up for.

Bottom line

Student loan debt looms large, but parents are vital in steering their children toward a future unencumbered by financial shackles. While saving ahead for college is the gold standard, exploring diverse avenues and being proactive in seeking alternative funding options can significantly reduce the burden of student loan debt for your own kids. With foresight, resourcefulness, and strategic planning, parents can pave the way for their children to pursue their dreams without the specter of insurmountable student loan debt overshadowing their future achievements.