UPDATED January 12th, 2018

College loans are always a long-term burden but, with the current high level of unemployment, they can be a serious nightmare.

If your kids are approaching college-age, here are a few secrets to help you keep that debt under control.

• Getting the highest possible grades starting in 9th grade will ensure a high GPA. This is not only the key to access the best colleges, but also to access the largest amounts of money in scholarships, as the majority of scholarships require a minimum 3.0 GPA.

• Taking dual credits at a local college is cheaper while kids are in high school. This means they complete certain credits towards their high school diploma and towards their college degree. Although not all colleges accept these credits, many do. I know many students who graduated high school and started college as sophomores. That translates into a year’s worth of savings in tuition, books, etc.

• Attending Early College high schools is another great way to save the cost of two years of college. These programs, designed specifically for first generation college-bound students, provide a rigorous environment and prepare them to enter college from the beginning of high school. Students can graduate with an associate’s degree tuition-free and can then transfer to a four-year college or university. Less time at a four-year institution results in more savings for the student and parents.

• Completing the FAFSA early (as close to January 1st of the year for which they need financial assistance) is critical. It will let students know if they qualify for the Pell Grant (up to $5,550), and for a large number of other federal, state and even private grants. Much of the funding is on a first-come first-served basis, hence the need to apply early.

• Encourage your kids to search for scholarships early on, that way they are aware of the requirements. Don’t overlook small scholarships ($500 to $1000) because there is often less competition for those; rack up several and they can quickly add up. Encourage your children to send applications to at least six universities. Studies show that students who get admitted in several colleges receive an average of 30% more in financial aid than those who apply to only one. That’s because those students get colleges to compete for their enrollment and are able to negotiate a better financial aid package.

Before you look for private loans, find out if any of the people in your network is willing to finance your child’s education. There’s a company that specializes in helping you formalize those kinds of agreements.

If you like this post, stay tuned for a future posting on unconventional ways to pay for college!