5 Avoidable Student Loan Mistakes

The rising cost of higher education is one reason why so many students find themselves graduating with record levels of student loan debt. It’s a problem that defies simple solutions or quick fixes.

But at the same time, some students find themselves graduating with a mountain of student loan debt in part because they didn’t do their homework to find a school that was a better fit for them financially, not just academically.

Here are five expensive mistakes parents and students make that lead them into too much student loan debt... and how to steer away from the more expensive path.

1. Thinking the Ivy League Is a Golden Ticket

Think a prestigious Ivy League school will guarantee your child connections, prestige -- and let’s admit it -- more money for the rest of their life? Many parents do, which is why they are willing to shell out exorbitant sums of money -- raiding their retirement accounts or taking on student loan debt the size of a mortgage -- for their child to attend one of these schools. But this perceived “advantage” has largely been discounted as the “Ivy League Earnings Myth.”

Researchers have found that, for the most part, students who were accepted into highly selective schools but went elsewhere to earn their degrees earned just as much on average as their Ivy League counterparts. (There are exceptions for students who were African-American, Latino, low-income or whose parents did not attend college themselves.) And a Gallup-Purdue University poll recently found that “when it comes to being engaged at work and experiencing high well-being after graduation...the type of institution (students) attended matters less than what they experienced there.” “It’s not the schools that are special,” insists college funding expert Lynn O’Shaughnessy who writes about college at TheCollegeSolution.com.

“It’s the kids themselves [who] are special.” The lesson? Think very hard and carefully before amassing a large amount of debt (or in the case of parents, raiding your retirement) to attend an expensive school, no matter how well-known. Your child may actually have a better experience at another school and save a lot of money in the process. Another option: Consider a school far away from where you live. You may be able to snag a bargain at schools looking to attract students from around the country. You can find great values at many schools that aren't among the college ratings darlings too.

2. Waiting Too Long to Get Your Number

The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is the critical number parents must know when searching for an affordable college education. But most parents don’t know what it is until they complete the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) in their child’s senior year of high school to find out what that number is. And that may be too late if your goal is to find an affordable education.

In fact, O’Shaughnessy says the right time to calculate your EFC is when your child starts high school. “You need to know what your EFC is to get a sense of what you are going to have to pay,” she says. Knowing this number will help you avoid surprises and allows you to be more targeted in your search for the right school. As an example, “If you have a high EFC, you want a school that gives high merit aid to students,” she says. (Merit aid is based on achievement, such as grades, as opposed to aid that is based on financial need, or “need-based aid.”) Have a low EFC? You may be able to get a lot of aid from a school that meets 100% of its student’s financial needs. And, yes, there are private colleges that make that promise.

3. Counting on Scholarships

Think you’ll be able to get lots of scholarships due to your brains, athletic ability or both? For most people, that’s simply not realistic.

"They are the smallest source of private money,” O'Shaughnessy says. As she explains in her book The College Solution, only "about 7% of college students receive a college scholarship and the average award is about $2,500."

Even worse, some colleges reduce the amount of aid by the amount of the scholarship received. However, that doesn’t mean that students shouldn’t apply for scholarships, though if they do they should definitely avoid scams that charge them fees to do so. They just shouldn’t think that scholarships are likely going to pay for their educations. Students who receive little in the way of need-based aid, in particular, may benefit because any money they get won’t reduce aid they aren’t getting anyway.

4. Comparing Sticker Price

Talk about sticker shock. Auto dealerships have nothing on colleges and universities, where the full price of tuition, fees, room and board can easily add up to more than the price of a new car purchased every year for four years! Fortunately most parents don’t pay the sticker price -- though many don’t realize that.

“Two thirds of families do not pay full price,” O’Shaughnessy says. Still, even with substantial discounts, an education be expensive. That’s why it is so important to shop around. “There are some good deals and some schools are terrible deals,” she says.

The place to start? The school’s “net price calculator” which is mandated by the federal government. The net price calculator is the price of the school, after grants or aid. Every school must have one, though some are better than others. Those that use the federal template aren’t usually very good sources, O’Shaughnessy says, because “they don’t ask enough questions.” A good calculator should take 10 or 15 minutes to complete because information from tax returns and non-retirement accounts must be entered. If merit aid is calculated, information about the student’s grades and test scores will have to be entered as well.

5. Focus on Getting Into School, Not Paying for It

Between SAT prep course and private tutoring, parents literally spend millions of dollars each year on training to try to get a leg up in the admissions process. But how much time or money do families spend trying to make sure they get the best deal? Not as much as you’d think. Part of it is due to the fact that they don’t know where to turn.

“Most high school counselors and most college consultants don’t know about the finances of school and how you pay for it,” says O’Shaughnessy, who says that she regularly hears from counselors and consultants who readily admit they know nothing about the subject. Every year O’Shaughnessy offers an online class based on her popular book and workbook, and every year she hears from desperate parents whose children (or they themselves) have already racked up tens of thousands in debt and want to try to cut the cost of their remaining education.

Parents and students can often save themselves a lot of money and grief by becoming smart consumers, and the sooner they do, the better. For students who already have accumulated student loan debt, the next step is to create a plan for paying back your debt. Get your free credit score so you understand how your student loan debt impacts your credit, and check out these strategies for paying off student loan debt.

Read More from Credit.com:

Can You Get Your Student Loans Forgiven?

Strategies for Paying Off Student Loan Debt 

How to Consolidate Student Loans