Wil Casaine, executive director of Financial Aid, Tutoring & The Center for Student Success at The College of New Jersey, offers advice for parents and students facing the struggle of college financial planning.

What are the most common mistakes parents and students make when they are approaching their loan structure? | People overextend themselves. Parents try to meet the student’s first-year cost of attendance and end up maxing out their loans and credit in the first year or two. By the third year, they find out their credit can’t handle more loans, and they are suddenly worrying about finding a cosigner—or worse, having the conversation with their son or daughter about them dropping out or going somewhere more affordable—and no one wants to have that conversation.

What are some smart financial strategies you can suggest, especially now that the cost of schools has continued to increase at such a high rate? | It’s important for parents and students to consider the nontraditional ways to get to college—think outside the box. For example, students can attend community college for 1 to 2 years and save up as much money as possible; have them figure out what they want to do in regards to their major, and get those prerequisite courses out of the way.

Another option is for students to commute to save money. I understand that students want to live on campus and have the college experience, but living on campus and having a meal plan can easily add $10,000 to $12,000 to the tuition bill. So perhaps consider commuting for 1 to 2 years, save up money, and then live on campus or in a house off campus later.

Another option is to look at the Armed Forces. They could join the military, pay into their GI bill, then when they come out of the military, they’re considered an independent student, which makes them eligible for more grants.

What can be done if a graduate does not have the ability to start paying off his or her loans immediately after graduation? | This is a really common issue among students, and there are a lot of options available, but students have to actively seek out the assistance. If you have federal student loans, the best place to start is studentaid.ed.gov.

Students often make the mistake of going back to graduate school but fail to inform the federal government. The students then qualify for a deferment of their loan payments and don’t even realize it. A student can receive forbearance by explaining to the government why they can’t pay their loans—whether they haven’t found a job yet or they’re sick, etc. This can be done on a yearly basis and gives students some time to get back on their feet.

The federal government can also evaluate your income in order to decrease your minimum payment. Only a certain percentage of your gross income can go toward the student loan, and if you’re not making enough money to pay the minimum, they will lower it.

When it comes to private lenders, students and parents have to understand that those lenders don’t want to see you default—they’d rather see you pay some kind of minimum payment. Try to call them and tell them that while you can’t handle the $200/month payment, you can handle $50/month.

How should a student go about finding out what financial support is available, beyond federal student loans? | It’s extremely important for students to be proactive, researching online and looking at their school’s financial aid and admissions pages. Also, parents and students should attend high school financial aid nights if they’re offered. Most importantly, consider sources that you might not have ever thought of. Parents can go to their employer’s HR office and ask if they offer financial aid to dependents. It also doesn’t hurt to ask if organizations such as the Lions Club offer competitive scholarships.

If you could offer a student or parent one piece of advice about financial planning, what would it be? | Start early—that’s the key to everything. Any early planning is better than nothing. Even if it’s 10 years before a kid will start college, parents should put $10 a month away. That will give them a cushion—combine that will other nonconventional approaches to college, and you’ve got a solid plan.

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