Many students heading off to college are experiencing sticker shock. Tuition is up an average 15 percent at many institutions, with some schools climbing as high as 40 percent.
The rising figures have financial experts urging students to become better consumers in pursuing their degree.
Student Christopher Wells is heeding the warning. The Old Dominion University junior is on a mission to earn his philosophy degree debt free.
The 20-year-old spoke with CBN News about the tough decisions he has made to save money.
"My first year my mother had to take money out of her 401k plan to pay," Wells said.
"We had a deal and she said that she would pay the first year at school, but every year after that I would have to pay for it myself, or figure out a way to pay for it," he explained.
Wells works summers instead of chilling out. This year, he spent 40 hours a week as an intern and waits tables on weekends for at least another 20 hours.
He wanted to run track but opted to attend a school that doesn't have a track team because it made more sense financially and academically. He also lives at home and commutes to class.
"I had the opportunity to live on campus. I could have taken out a loan. But I chose not to," Wells told CBN News. "And that was one of the biggest decisions for me."
It hasn't been easy for the aspiring actor, model, and college professor. But Wells is an honor student on track to graduate next year with no student loan debt.
Students in the Red
Many of his classmates won't enjoy the same freedom.
Recent figures from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York show the total student debt in America has climbed to $1 trillion, with the average individual borrowers facing $23,300.
However, some graduates are finding themselves more than $100,000 in the red. And no matter how much is owed, that debt is even tougher to pay back in today's economy when most college graduates can't find a job.
Personal finance expert Dave Ramsey said students must now change their thinking when it comes to college.
"So many times I meet folks who've spent $100,000 to get a Ph.D in German polka history or something," Ramsey told CBN News. "Oh, my gosh, where are they going to get this money back?"
"We've got to break the mindset that in order to be a student, you have to have a student loan," he continued. "Instead, let's go back to the old fashioned way of paying for it. You actually can do that. It's difficult, but you can do it. It's called work."
A Loan-Free Education
That work actually begins before even applying for college by choosing affordable schools, perhaps a community college to get started.
Then it is important for students to look for free money in the form of grants and scholarships.
"You've got to apply for scholarships. There's lots of them out there," Ramsey advised. "You've got to take classes on how to take your SAT and ACTs so that your scores come up, which qualifies you for more scholarships."
"And then you get grants," he continued. "I grant you the right to work while you're in school."
Once in college, students must be careful when spending on lifestyle extras, like pizza and parties.
"The average college student, graduating last year, had $27,900 in student loan debt," Ramsey said.
"That's about what they spent over four years to live off campus, in an apartment, to eat out, to attend social functions associated with college," he explained. "So really those dollars that drove them into debt were not education dollars, they were lifestyle dollars."
Pay as You Go
That's a lesson Wells has already mastered. Wells doesn't carry a credit card or a car loan. He still drives his 2001 Chevy his parents gave him in high school.
"My mother has always said to me, 'If you ain't got it, don't get it,'" he said. "So, if I don't have it, I am not going to get it. If I don't have the cash for it, then I am not going to buy it."
"You know, life is not all about partying, going out with your friends," he continued. "If you want to be successful in life, you have to work, you have got to save your money, you have to budget. That is very essential."
*Originally published August 8, 2012.