The Institute for College Access and Success’ Project on Student Debt reports that in 2011 four-year college graduates averaged more than $26,000 in student debt. Educational and financial experts are deeply concerned about the amount of debt students are incurring to complete bachelor’s degrees. While unemployment rates for those who complete a degree beyond high school are considerably lower, this debt can still have a long-term effect on these graduates’ success for years to come. Major life decisions such as getting married, having children and buying a home are often delayed due to remaining student debt. 

With two-thirds of all four-year college graduates incurring debt, the days of a student being able to finance college with summer employment are gone. The numbers of students incurring debt to attend college, along with the amount of that debt, have been increasing in recent years. Illinois graduates show nearly identical percentages of debt as the national trend. 

According to the College Board, public community college students graduate with significantly less debt than their peers who attend for-profit two-year colleges, as well as their peers attending four-year institutions. In fact, 62 percent of public community college degree completers graduate without any debt at all compared to only 2 percent of their peers who earn degrees from for-profit two-year schools. Of the community college graduates who do incur debt, the vast majority of them are able to keep debt under $10,000. 

While larger answers to student debt can be debated, one obvious solution to limit student debt at the personal level is to encourage more students — including those who plan to pursue bachelor’s degrees — to begin their college path at a community college. With tuition rates at a fraction of every other type of institution, community colleges offer an unparalleled value. Completing the first two years of a bachelor’s degree at a local community college can shave thousands off of a student’s debt total. 

It is incredibly important for students to truly understand the costs of college, no matter where they choose to attend. All colleges must have a Net Price Calculator posted on the institution’s website to aid students’ decision making. Families should discuss options together and weigh the pros and cons of each institution, keeping in mind future career paths and earning potential. 

At Waubonsee Community College, students can learn more about Waubonsee’s financial resources and costs to attend at Waubonsee’s tuition and fees are very affordable. In addition, the college offers numerous financial assistance options to make a college degree even more attainable. One way we do this is by offering more than 200 scholarships funded through the Waubonsee Community College Foundation. Current and prospective students should apply for a scholarship no later than midnight on Feb. 7, 2013, on Waubonsee’s website

Students have so many choices when it comes to attending and financing college that it can be easy to miss out on opportunities. Doing your research and starting early are two key steps to maximizing the availability of financial resources. Anyone who wants financial aid for college will need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). All federal grants and loan awards, as well as financial aid awards from nearly all colleges, are determined based on this application. So get started today, complete your FAFSA, and you’ll be on your way to determining the amount of aid for which you’re eligible. The work you put in now will pay off later with lower student debt and more flexibility as you start your post-college career.