Going to college is a big step and the type of degree you choose to pursue will have a tremendous impact on your life. Therefore, it is a decision that should be taken seriously and carefully considered. Like many things in life, it is much easier to get into college and student debt than it is to get out of it.
The best way to reduce your student debt is to not take out as many loans in the first place by choosing an affordable college and a degree that will pay for itself. If you study for a liberal arts degree like english literature at a private college, do you really think it will help you get a job that will allow you to pay off all of the resulting debt? While it is important to pick a field that interests you, you should also be thinking about a career. Engineering is one of the most rewarding fields to study, since its graduates enjoy the highest average starting pay among people with bachelor's degrees. Other areas like pre-medicine and pre-law are a gateway to higher schools that will allow you to enter a high-paying field. Other areas of study are less likely to pay off. For example, studying history, while interesting, is not very likely to land you a job that focuses on history unless you want to be a history teacher. Some things you may be better off studying on your own or taking a few classes in during your spare time if it is only something that interests you and not something you want to get a career in. Try to select a career that is in high demand like engineering, teaching, or nursing and you will have a much easier time finding a job that pays well.
Private schools are often trumpeted as the best choices due to their name brand. Sure, in some cases it may help, but often the name brand isn't enough to get you a job and in some cases nobody will have heard of the private school anyways. The biggest benefit of a private school is that class sizes are often smaller and more focused, but it may not warrant the additional cost. Public schools are often very good and worth considering first, since they are usually less expensive, although if you are from out-of-state it will usually cost a bit more. In general, public schools are cheaper and treated just as good as private schools in the job market.
Once you are in college, try to find a job that will help you cover your living expenses at least. In some cases, you can get discounts on housing by working as a resident assistant. If you can, try to get a part-time job and summer internship in your chosen field to buff up your resume for the post-graduation job hunt. In most cases it is cheaper to live in the dorms and more convenient than commuting from an apartment. If your college is in your hometown area, consider living with your parents to really save on money.
As far as loans go, use as much federal and state aid as possible since these loans have the lowest interest rates. If you absolutely must, use private loans, but beware of origination fees and high interest rates. Many private loans have interest rates of 10% or more. Predatory lending to students is very common and you should stick with reputable banks and organizations. Avoid racking up credit card debt at all costs.
During college, pay off the interest that compounds on your student loans if you can. This will help keep your loan amounts at their original levels and prevent them from snowballing over the years. When you graduate, you typically have a 6 month grace period before the loan owners start asking for monthly payments. Sometimes you can lengthen the grace period if you haven't found a job yet. If you can't make the payments, call the lender and try to avoid defaulting on the loan. Many lenders can extend the payment schedule to allow for lower payments or work out reduced payments for a temporary period while you search for a better job.
When you get your first job and suddenly have money to spend, try to avoid blowing it on stuff. If you keep living lean like you did during college, you can make big payments on your student loans that will make your future payments have a larger impact. If you get a sign on bonus, you can use all of it to pay off a huge chunk of your student loans. Above all, try to take a year or two to spend frugally and focus on paying down your student loans. By paying more than the minimum amount required, you can pay down the principal amount and reduce future interest costs by a significant amount. Also, order your loans by their interest rates in descending order. Your strategy should be to pay off the loan with the highest interest rate first and work your way down, all the while making minimum payments on the other loans.
In some cases you can consolidate all of your loans at a lower interest rate. If you can do this, it is a good idea since you would only have a single payment to make and it would make things less complicated. However, watch out for origination fees and try to calculate if it would be worthwhile in the long run.
It is a good idea to keep a spreadsheet that tracks your student loan balances over time. This will let you keep track of how much you owe to whom and what the annual interest is on each loan. You can also make a graph of the balances over time since it is nice to watch the lines move towards zero as you pay off your loans. You can also set small goals that are easy to accomplish and set a monthly payment goal for each loan.
Some lenders offer deals that will reduce your interest rate. For example, many lenders will reduce your interest rate if you set up automatic monthly payments from your bank account. Some will also let you set up electronic statements or give you an interest rate deduction if you make a certain number of payments on time. Take as many of these opportunities as you can.
Student debt is often difficult to cope with, since many people can end up with $50-100k in debt by the time they graduate. The best thing to do is to try to reduce the amount of loans you have to take and then focus on paying them down as soon as possible. Above all, behave responsibly because you don't want to spend your life as an indentured servant to some banks. Don't get into a degree that won't pay for itself and don't ignore the costs that you are incurring. Pay your loans responsibly and strategically. In the long run, it can save you a lot of money and greatly improve your quality of life.