The cost of a college education is increasing at an average of 7 percent each year. Growing along with it is the average student loan debt for college graduates. For those graduating in April 2013, the average for undergraduates hovered around $26,000. As such, it is becoming more and more important for teenagers to prepare themselves for the costs associated with getting a college degree, and, of course, to avoid using student loans to pay for them as much as possible. Here are some things for students and parents to consider.

Consider going to a smaller college

You may think that a degree from one of the top universities is necessary to land a high-paying job out of college, and I'll admit that there is a measure of clout that comes with some of the top schools in your chosen area of study. While the prestige of the university you attended may help you get your first job, your career path down the road will be largely driven by your individual skill, passion and work ethic - not your education. For that reason, consider attending a smaller college, or getting your general class requirements out of the way at a community college then transferring to a bigger university for your area's coursework. This can save you a lot of money, allow you to minimize your financial needs and still get that clout from a bigger school.

Get a job

During my single days in college, I attended school full time and worked full time. Doing this not only enabled me to avoid student loans for the entire time I was single, but it also gave me an opportunity that most part-time working students don't get - real-life work experience. Because I worked full time, I was considered for, and given, promotions that my part-time co-workers weren't; which improved my chances at getting a better job after graduation. As far as your social life goes, you will have to be better at planning and more diligent, but I am glad I avoided student loans for as long as I did. Moreover, I don't feel like I missed out on anything for doing it.

Apply for scholarships

There are a lot more scholarship opportunities out there than you think. Scholarships.com has given almost $2 billion over the last 15 years in scholarships and grants. You can even search by category (i.e. major, minority and even unusual scholarships). There are several other websites that offer the same. The requirements vary and it takes time to apply to enough of them to get anything in return, but if you compare the time spent with the amount you could receive, it is more than worth your time. It can also help you as a high school student learn the value of the money you are seeking as you do your due diligence. Apply also for scholarships at your school of choice. Academic-based, needs-based and other scholarships can be applied for through the school's website.

Study hard

If you don't already qualify for an academic-based scholarship as an incoming freshman, it doesn't have to stay that way as you go throughout your college experience. After I transferred from one university to another, I didn't qualify for an academic-based scholarship. But after just one semester of good grades, I received a half-tuition scholarship and continued to receive one almost every semester until I graduated. Some would rather have fun than do the extra studying. But it pays off in the end when you get a head start after graduation because you have less debt to worry about.

Apply for grants

If you come from a low-income family, are married or if you are single and over the age of 24 you may qualify for federal grants. This is free money that you do not have to pay back as you would a loan. You can apply for this federal financial aid at www.fafsa.ed.gov. Like a student loan, this money is not just meant to pay tuition, it can also be used to pay for housing, books, food and other things.

These tips are not the only way to avoid relying on student loans, but it is important to recognize how important it is to do so. Student debt can be a burden that you carry with you years beyond graduation and can severely inhibit your ability to establish a solid financial plan for your future family down the road.

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