John C. Maxwell, author of Developing the Leaders Around You
Developing the Leaders Around You
July 17, 2015
John Phillips NCPACE
Applying Effort to Knowledge with NCPACE
August 3, 2015

How to Avoid the Student Debt Trap

how to avoid student debt

If you’ve been reading the news headlines, you know that it’s time for students across the nation to take a long look at their finances. For students at CLS, many of whom have families to consider, the harsh realities of living with student debt are all the more worrisome. Mounting interest and loan payments can be detrimental when a family has a set income and little to no wiggle room if times get tough.

So what can you do to avoid the student debt trap?

1. Start early and save

If possible, start saving for your degree as early as you can. This can be as involved as planning years ahead of time, or as simple as having a garage sale before you prepare to enroll. The more money you have to dedicate to your degree, the easier it will be for you in the long run.

2. Take a look at your scholarship options

Many universities can help you find scholarships to make your education more affordable. These are monetary awards that do not have to be repaid.

OU launched the Campaign for Scholarships in 2005 to help ensure that no qualified, hard-working student is ever turned away due to financial need. With more than $200 million raised in gifts and pledges, OU has doubled the number of private scholarships available for students, including Sooner Heritage scholarships for CLS students.

Many scholarships are available specifically for College of Liberal Studies students, as well. Scholarship awards vary from $300 – $1,500 per semester and are awarded based on financial need, academic performance and emergency assistance. CLS students can apply for these awards in addition to the university-wide scholarships they are eligible for.

3. Submit your FAFSA!

Before we can help you find scholarships, however, you need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Filling out this form each year is one of the most important things you can do if you plan to seek financial assistance – and it’s a valuable planning tool, to boot!

The U.S. Department of Education uses the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for federal student aid. The federal government awards $150,000 billion in grants, work-study awards and low-interest loans each year. The FAFSA is simply a way of telling us that you would like to be considered for these awards. Do not assume you do not qualify for financial aid. Aid is available for many students and for many reasons – there is no excuse not to submit your application.

Many states have different deadlines for submitting your application. At OU, we recommend that you submit your FAFSA before midnight on March 1 of each year.

4. Consider internships or work-study programs

Internships are a great way to make some extra money and gain relevant experience while you’re in school. Even better, qualifying internships can actually earn you college credit after you complete them. These internships are often unpaid, however, so be sure to ask the organization exactly how you’ll be compensated.

5. Look into grants

Like scholarships, grants are monetary awards that do not have to be repaid. These awards are a form of supplemental aid for students who have special abilities or who are experiencing financial difficulty. Some common grants include Pell Grants, FSEOG grants, and TEACH grants. Contact a financial aid advisor to ask about grant options that might be available to you.

6. Read before you sign

There are many loan options available to students, but it is important to be aware of what you are agreeing to before accept them. Make sure you know key terms – like the difference between a variable rate and a fixed rate, and how a private loan differs from a government loan – before you commit yourself to paying back something you might not be able to afford later on.

7. Do not take more than you need

It’s tempting to take the full loan amount you are offered each semester. If you think you could manage to pay for school without the full amount, however, then do so! Accepting only as much money as you need will limit the amount you will have to pay off after you graduate – and keep your interest payments lower, too.

8. Buy used textbooks

Buying pre-owned textbooks can help you save money for your other expenses. Luckily, there are several resources for finding quality textbooks at great prices:

  • The CLS Virtual Student Union – Students use this Facebook group to buy and sell CLS textbooks.
  • OU/Norman Facebook groups – Many students use area-specific Facebook groups to buy and sell textbooks on campus.
  • Amazon.com – A throwback to its humble beginnings as a bookseller, Amazon is still a great place to find books at rock-bottom prices.
  • BetterWorldBooks.com – This is a great choice for students who want to use their bargain hunting to give back. BetterWorldBooks donates a book to someone in need every time you buy a book from their site.
  • Chegg.com – This site boasts that they can save you up to 90% on used textbooks, and they offer the option to rent or buy eTextbooks as well.

If none of the above options work for you, or if you think that these solutions still might not be enough, you might consider enrolling in school and taking only a few classes a time. This will help limit the expense – in terms of both money and valuable time you could spend at work or with your family – that you must commit to your studies.

Finally, if you find that the financial commitment of attending a major college or university is simply too great, you might look for less expensive options for your education. A key factor in this decision will be the return on your investment after earning the degree. Community colleges and certificate programs are a great way to get started without committing yourself to hefty tuition costs. A university degree is worthwhile and valuable, but bankrupting yourself to obtain it is not.

For information about assistance paying for school, please visit our scholarship page and keep an eye out for upcoming blog posts about your financial aid options.

Mary Wuestewald
Mary Wuestewald specializes in digital and content marketing at OU Outreach. In 2015, she earned a master's degree in Strategic Communication from OU’s College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She currently contributes to Insight magazine, the CLS blog and CLS social media efforts.

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