11 Ways Parents Can Help Kids Cut College Debt Now

Here are some cost-cutting tips from students and college financial aid people.

Parents who purchase prepaid tuition credits should plan ahead to avoid surprises when their child gets to college.
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[See 4 Costly Mistakes Parents Make When Saving for College.]

Don't be afraid to ask questions. It's the job of financial aid offices to provide information, says Greene. "A lot of people ask their neighbor or friend what they did to pay for college. If you do that you will only be getting part of the picture." Some parents are afraid to approach the financial aid office at the school where their child is applying for fear it will hurt their child's chances of getting in. But some schools will view it as a sign of serious interest, a positive in admissions. And the majority of students look for financial aid. Some schools admit their student admission policies are not entirely "needs blind." But talking with financial aid specialists are unlikely to be a factor. Once a student is admitted, financial aid officers want to see students graduate and usually are ready to help.

Let financial aid office know about a change in your situation. "I've come across students who are embarrassed to say that their parent has lost their job. But they really should share that information because sometimes we can help," says Greene. Many schools have emergency funds for just this situation. There are also Federal programs that come into play when jobs losses hit parents.

Wrong numbers on forms can be costly. Incorrect information can be costly since it can lead to delays in processing forms. Incorrect Social Security numbers are one of the biggest errors that turn up, says Greene, and that mistake alone could be enough to delay aid for weeks or months.

Don't be embarrassed to start college trips early with your kids. Some early high school students will feel peer pressure not to do tours when they are far from graduation. They don't want to be uncool in high school. Adults, too, worry about being seen as pushy by taking younger students on college trips. But early visits are great chances to explore schools and fully understand the costs and benefits. What's more, an ambivalent high school freshman might find new inspiration in their visit to State College in springtime when things are in bloom. "The old junior-year visit is done partly because the dorm visits are more difficult with younger students," says Greene. "But most schools will be glad to arrange tours or visits with younger teens."

Share debt with your children. Many boomer parents don't want to stick their kids with huge debt. It's an admirable goal, but at least a small piece of borrowing on the student's part can be an incentive to manage and understand costs. Green says, "It's not bad if they have some skin in the game."

Set a realistic number. Before the college chase begins junior year, it pays to consider what you can afford to contribute and talk about it with your child. Try to be encouraging. Some kids will decide they don't want to pay the cost, or will not want to add to their parent's money burdens. Have the talk at the start of the application process before getting accepted at a too-expensive dream school turns into a family nightmare. Remember that you will probably want to be fair in giving equal opportunity to all of your children, so asses the overall costs and limits to family income.

[See How Newlyweds Paid Off $52,000 in Debt in 18 Months.]

Get a (reasonable) job. Over 50 percent of students work in college. But too much of a good thing can hurt the college experience and also hurt students' grades. A National Survey of Student Engagement study showed that if students work for 20 hours or less, it will not hurt grades. Over that level academic performance suffers, the study shows.

Every student has their own tips. A 2010 Cornell graduate, public relations executive David Brodnick of Weber Shandwick, found a way to stretch dollars at the deli counter.

"My own dollar stretching tactics in college surrounded holding down a deli job that allowed me to eat lunch for free at work (not to mention actual pay) and to go off the university's costly food plan. Living in a fraternity house for three years I saved probably $5,000 to $10,000, as all living expenses were included, and I didn't have to cook or clean, and could focus on studying."