If you had an old-school mom or grandma, you have probably heard her say, “Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean you have to.” Back in the day, that pearl of wisdom often referred to drinking alcohol, taking drugs or participating in premarital sex. But today, it could just as well include taking out a loan for college.

More than 40 million Americans have a collective $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, higher than America’s credit card indebtedness[1]. This year’s graduating class is the most indebted class ever with the average 2015 graduate who has student loans leaving college with more than $35,000 in debt.[2] That’s enough money to purchase a new car for cash or make a hefty down payment on a home, something many graduates are forced to put off because they’re too loaded down with student loans.

When you look at student loan numbers for African-Americans, it’s even more disturbing. The U.S. student debt load falls disproportionately harder on African-Americans than whites. From 2000 to 2014, half of all African-American graduates left college with more than $25,000 in debt as compared to 34 percent of white graduates.[3] That’s a gap that will impact buying power and the accumulation of wealth for a lifetime. Even though more African-Americans are going to college, we’re also leaving with a financial burden that can follow borrowers for more than 20 years.[4]

The Bible says “the borrower is a slave to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). So, how do you go to a selective college without taking on a boat-load of debt and becoming a slave? The answer will call for you to start now to develop a strategy that excludes, or at the most, minimizes debt. Don’t let the place that historically has been a path to opportunity and upward mobility become a four-year descent into financial bondage.

Get good grades. Working hard to achieve excellent grades and test scores is your first defense against college debt. In fact, it’s your only leverage, especially if your family doesn’t have a lot of money to put toward college. Colleges want students who they think will succeed in their classrooms. Currently, the only measure of that is the academic success you’ve had in high school. Take the hardest courses in your school and do well. If your school offers Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, take as many as you can and do well. These courses can help you attain the scores you’ll need on tests like the PSAT that gets you considered for the National Merit Scholarship. National Merit Scholars, National Achievement Scholars and National Hispanic Recognition Program award recipients are often offered significant scholarships at state universities and private colleges. Use your knowledge to take College-Level Examinations (CLEP) that can help you earn college credit hours. With the average college credit hour costing $700 and a CLEP test costing $80, you can test out of many college courses, saving yourself time and money in college. Nearly 3,000 colleges and universities accept CLEP credits, so it’s worth identifying a few colleges that do when you’re putting together your list of college choices. Another smart move is to decide right now that you’ll complete college in four years, unless you’ll be in a special program that’s earning you a dual degree or an advanced degree, like doctor of pharmacy. Every additional year will cost additional money—money you might have to borrow. If you really want to cut costs, try finishing college in three and a half years and those CLEP tests can be a help with that.

Know the game changer. As important as academic achievements are, another factor that can help keep your student loan debt low or nonexistent is your school choice. Everyone wants to go to their dream school. But with college costs rising more than 1,100 percent over the past 30 years, your dream needs to include a scene that makes college affordable.[5]

Give yourself options. In the job market, one of the best situations to find yourself in is to have a couple of job offers at the same time. The same can be true about college. Don’t get hooked on one school. Have several schools that would work for you if the price is right. Do your homework, researching not only their curriculum, culture and campus, but also their costs, average loan debt, and work/study programs. Now, let’s say you’re accepted to two or three of these colleges. Look closely at the financial aid packages. If there’s anything there you don’t understand, especially whether something is a loan or a scholarship, call the college’s financial aid office and find out. Then ask yourself, can my family afford that? If not, talk with each college again to see what else they can do. It’s especially important to do this if your family’s financial circumstances have changed since you applied. It’s appropriate to do this if you have different award amounts from comparable colleges. Some colleges will “match” other colleges’ financial packages. Just be sure that what’s being matched or increased is scholarship and grant amounts, not loans. The college that you go to can be the largest funder of your college education when they want to be. Let them want you by your good grades, your examples of extracurricular involvement in high school, and your enthusiasm about attending their school.

Apply for other scholarships. If you still have an annual loan amount after working with the colleges, look for other scholarship and grant sources. You can potentially get scholarships and grants from your church, your high school, and local community and civic clubs. You have a higher probability of receiving financial assistance from these sources than random online scholarship websites. Talk to your high school counselor and people who have gone to college and ask them about additional funding opportunities.

Think about how you can spend your college summers to lower your educational costs. Use those summers to take some basic courses at a community college. There are many community colleges where the courses are well taught and less expensive. Just make sure these credits will be accepted by the college from which you will graduate. Many students choose the community college option for a couple of years and then transfer to a selective school. Just remember, if you plan to do this, you’ll now need to make those ever-important good grades at the community college, have some solid extracurricular activities, and a rationale for wanting to transfer to the new school.

Do everything you possibly can on the front end of your college education to keep the back end from being a financial shackle. Finishing college debt-free will make you one of the wisest students in your graduating class.

Maisie Sparks is a writer and author. Her newest book, 151 Things God Can’t Do, will be released on Oct. 27.

[1] http://money.cnn.com/2014/09/10/pf/college/student-loans/

[2] http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2015/05/08/congratulations-class-of-2015-youre-the-most-indebted-ever-for-now/

[3] http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/09/18/gallup-poll-black-college-students-more-likely-to-graduate-with-debt

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/money/us-money-blog/2014/oct/07/expensive-college-education-reinforces-racial-inequality-us-america

[5] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/15/cost-of-college-degree-increase-12-fold-1120-percent-bloomberg_n_1783700.html

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