7 ways to graduate debt free

As a freshman, you start your college years with the aim of earning a paper-thin prize: a diploma. But too many students are graduating with the equivalent of a financial lead weight: a massive mound of debt. In 2006, the average college senior owed more than $19,000, which can be a big budget burden as you start your post-college life. So here are seven ways to get closer to the goal of graduating, without owing a ton:

1. Think free
There may be more free money out there than you know, so be sure to exhaust all your scholarship possibilities before you take out a loan. The College Board has a database of more than 2,300 scholarship providers, from the Association of Accredited Airport Executives to the Vegetarian Resource Group. But be wary of any organization that wants you to pay them to help you find scholarships.

2. Think selectively
A degree from an elite (and perhaps expensive) school may not be worth it, if it’s going to burden you with debt for decades to come. Most public schools offer reasonable in-state tuition rates. Some private schools have large endowments and lots of scholarships to offer. There are even a handful of colleges that are free to anyone who can get in.

3. Think small
Consider attending a community college for two years, then transferring to a four-year university. You’ll save big bucks on tuition, but you’ll still have the big-name school on your diploma.

4. Think local
It may not fit with your college dorm-life daydreams, but if you choose a school that allows you to live with family, you can save thousands on housing costs.

5. Think quickly
Enroll in classes that will earn you college credits while in high school or take one or two extra classes every semester when you’re in college. You could earn your degree in just three years.

6. Think hard
Hard work, that is. Make the most of your summers by looking for well-paid summer employment, and sign up for campus work-study programs during the school year.

7. Think frugally
Life’s luxuries can wait until you’re earning a paycheck of your own, so skip the shopping sprees and expensive dinners out. Look for free or cheap campus entertainment options, and take most of your meals in the campus cafeteria.

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