I graduated from college in the late 1990s at a time when friends were jetting off to work at tech start-ups and my paid internship turned seamlessly into a full-time gig. I didn't graduate with much college debt, but even my friends loaded with loans were on the hook for $20,000 at most -- a sum most could pay off in a decade.

Today, college graduates are leaving school with dimmer job prospects and more college debt. Families are even asking, "Is a college degree worth the cost?"

That's a fair question, and one the Pew Research Center recently took up in a 150-page report that found that 57 percent of Americans say a college degree is not a good value for the money and out of reach for the vast majority. Yet 86 percent of college graduates say college has been a good investment for them personally.

"Sometimes it's like 'Ugh, I have a big debt,' but I also graduated with a really good degree and know I can pay it off," said Carla Harris, 24, who left the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth with a doctor of physical therapy, a full-time job in her field and $80,000 in loans.

"I have some debt that I think is unfortunate ... but what I have learned both in the classroom, outside of my classroom, through my jobs, through the organizations I've been involved with is 100 percent worth it," said Allison Henning, who has $13,000 in loans from her University of Minnesota journalism degree and is seeking a job in public relations.

The average amount of student debt among graduates who have loans is $27,200, according to Mark Kantrowitz, financial aid researcher and publisher of www.finaid.org.

I asked a Harris, Henning and a handful of other recent graduates to share advice on affording college with teens in the throes of planning for it.

Share your own advice on my blog: www.startribune.com/mcguire.

Work, work, work. Dana Penkivech just graduated from North Dakota State University with a doctor of pharmacy degree and zero loans. His family helped, but the 25-year-old also paid for much of it himself. He started working when he was 10 and kept socking money away for college throughout high school. "Even if you can pay for one year before you have to take out student loans, that can be a significant savings," he said.

In college, he put more than 200,000 miles on his truck traveling all over the Midwest to referee hockey games.

It's a tough climate for teens in search of part-time jobs, but start looking early, use your personal network, and think creatively about ways to earn money.

Save, save, save. "Graduates that had saved were able to cover more than half of their college costs," said Joe Ciccariello, Fidelity's vice president of college planning, citing a recent survey the investment company conducted that found 44 percent of the class of 2011 started college without savings. "Every dollar saved is a dollar less in debt," he said.

Many families save in 529 plans, tax-advantaged accounts dedicated to college savings. But a good old-fashioned savings account or savings bonds work, too.

Saving doesn't have to be painful, said Shauna Archambault, a 23-year-old finance major from the University of St. Thomas. "Shovel away $10 or $20 a week" if you're working, or take graduation gift money and "put a portion toward tuition or textbooks," she said.

Consider your career and lifestyle aspirations. One reason Harris went into physical therapy is because she knew "there are lots of opportunities in the field." Information about various careers, including salary data and hiring outlook through 2018, is available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: www.bls.gov/oco. For state-specific information, there's www.iseek.org. It's good to do your research and determine whether the career you're considering will afford you the lifestyle you want before you pick your major.

Do your best in high school. Getting good grades and getting involved make you more attractive to colleges and help win scholarships, recent graduates said. Look for scholarships "from places that you might not even think of -- companies have scholarships or your parents' work might have scholarships," Henning said. Take time to understand how scholarships will affect financial aid, and all of the other nuances of college financing. Don't rule out a school with a higher sticker price; it might have deeper pockets for aid, said Ciccariello.

And please, fill out the federal student aid applications, known as the FAFSA, even if you don't think you'll qualify for help. Families leave financial aid on the table each year, colleges say.

Living within your means -- get used to it. Archambault started balancing her checkbook and making sure she spent less than she earned while in college. It's a habit that has served her well post-graduation, too. "I have never really had issues with late payments or falling short," she said. With banks sending low-balance alerts to customers' smartphones to free online budget-tracking sites such as www.mint.com, it has never been easier to keep on top of your finances.

Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293 or kmcguire@startribune.com. Twitter: @kablog