By now most students are done with their college applications. Postsecondary education is a passport to better earnings and more employment over a lifetime. College graduates are more likely to get jobs that come with health insurance and an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

That said, many people are right to worry about the soaring price tag for that investment. Specifically, student loan debt has quadrupled since 2004, totaling a record $1.3 trillion. Too many young adults are handicapped by debt when they’re launching their careers — an outrageous state of affairs.

The goal these days has become to attend college without taking on crushing debt. It isn’t easy, but the effort is worthwhile. You’ll need to do your homework and make some tough choices. Since most students won’t hear from colleges until the spring, our frigid winter months are a good time for parents and students to think through the finances of attending college with an eye toward keeping borrowing down.

That’s what John Wasik did when he went through the college process with his eldest daughter, with the goal of avoiding debt. To help others achieve that goal, he wrote a book, “The Debt-Free Degree: How To Eliminate College Debt at Every Level.” His book is a succinct, pointed journey through the entire college process, from what colleges to consider to student loan repayment strategies. The benefit of the book is its focus on reducing debt at each stage of the endeavor. “My goal is to help you avoid or defeat student loans, so you can earn a debt-free degree and live a more prosperous life,” he writes.

In the next several months you should become familiar with the financial aid system. A good resource on financial aid is Edvisors’ Filing the FAFSA: The Edvisors Guide to Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, 2016-17 edition. offers in-depth information. Wasik recommends spending time at the Department of Education’s College Navigator site, a resource for everything from a college’s tuition and fees to its student loan default rates.

The name of the college game isn’t the retail “sticker” price, but the “net price” to your student after taking into account tuition discounts and the like.

“Debt-Free Degree” is a practical guide for “seeing college debt as the enemy and developing several strategies to avoid it.” Check it out.


Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, “Marketplace,” commentator, Minnesota Public Radio.