When Forbes magazine published its listing of America’s top colleges, looking at “best value” as a criteria, I knew that “value” for many prospective students really means “debt.”  For today’s graduates, shiny promises quickly lose their luster when the student loan payment book arrives before a job offer. 

The time is now to rethink how we finance college before young people sign those college loan applications, starting their lives burdened by excessive obligations. [pullquote]

Before you assume that college is “always worth it”, take a look at the facts. The Wall Street Journal this week reported, “Roughly a quarter of college graduates with jobs are earning barely more than those with only a high-school diploma.” 

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Too bad college costs don’t reflect that. The higher education industry has enjoyed sacred cow status, raising its prices exponentially. While U.S. jobs are paying an average of 23 percent less since 2008, the overall cost of a degree from a four-year public school is up 27 percent beyond overall inflation during the same time period. This trend should cause any prospective student or family of the student to make a wise decision about how to pay for this higher education. 

I know first hand that education and crushing debt don’t have to be sold as a package. In fact, my oldest two sons have attended college debt free, using ideas that I teach as head of an organization that helps people get out of debt and develop financial management skills.

But I worry for my sons’ friends and colleagues as 7 in 10 college seniors graduated with debt, an average of $29,400 per debtor, according to a recent report from the Project on Student Debt at The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS). 

This kind of oppressive price tag has resulted in a staggering shift, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York which now indicates that student debt at more than $1.1 trillion is greater than credit card and car loan obligations, surpassed only by mortgages. Yes, we now have a student loan bubble. 

Let’s start with the big question first, college or educational alternatives? 

A wake up call to gluttonous college and university leadership may come as students use their time and resources to pursue a trade, rather than a degree. Mike Rowe, of “Dirty Jobs” fame on the Discovery channel, challenges people to consider skilled labor for their life’s work. “We’re lending money we don’t have, to kids who will never be able to pay it back, for jobs that no longer exist,” he says

Here’s my advice: 

Consider vocational education to learn a trade or skill that can lead to a job or possible career. There are schools and training programs for a wide range of occupations from soldiers, appliance repairmen, welders, plumbers, mechanics, air traffic controllers, beauticians, message therapists and court reporters to chefs. 

Seek an internship or apprenticeship to get a foot in the industry before you go to school. Even volunteering for a company or organization in the field where you aspire to work is a good use of time. Investing 3 months in a real life environment will provide priceless experience, relationships and insight long before you decide to commit your life to that profession.

Start a business right out of high school. For many, the real cost of college is the opportunity cost of lost experience for future entrepreneurs. College dropouts who had a burning desire to get started with their business plan versus attending classes have launched many of the largest companies in the world. 

Pursue on-line education. You may find an Ivy-league quality experience for pennies on the dollar and get a better value plus a flexible learning environment. 

Work your way around the world. Another good alternative to a college education is to travel and work at odd jobs. Not only is travel a great education but working in a variety of jobs, cultures and companies will give a young person clarity on what they do or do not want to spend the rest of their life doing.  

Finally, just get a job as you sort it out. Postponing college in favor of work experience while making a plan and carefully choosing a field of study would be time well spent.

But for those ready to seek their college degree, here are our recommended “12 Steps” to earn it without debt:

1. Know yourself. Rather than just take prep-course for the ACT and SAT tests, do some self-evaluation to choose the appropriate course of study. Crown’s Career Direct is a personal assessment that can help a student turn their passion into a career.

2. Treat high school as the place to work to earn the grades that will qualify students for scholarships and grants. It is the highest paying “job” for anyone age 14-18. For some, it could mean more than $100,000 of financial rewards.

3. Take as many AP classes as possible while still in high school. The college credits earned there save money later.

4. Take dual or joint enrollment classes while still in high school. These are taught either in your high school or on a college campus. They are graded and count toward your GPA.

5. Turn a teenager’s web browsing skills to good use looking for scholarships off the beaten path. Many big box stores like Walmart and Target offer a large number of small general scholarships for local students, from $500 to $1,000. Every little bit helps.

6. Attend a community college for the first two years while living at home. It dramatically lowers the cost of a college education while still allowing the student to earn a diploma from the desired school.

7. Choose an affordable institution for an undergraduate degree, and save money for a master’s degree at the school of your choice.

8. “CLEP” out of some classes. The College Level Examination Program, or CLEP, allows you to test out of certain classes. Study guides are available to help you learn enough material to pass the test.

9. Participate in the U-Promise program.

10. Work part time while in school, during breaks and over the summer – and save. Studies prove that students who work perform better in their classes.

11. Consider the military. By joining a military reserve unit, significant funds can be earned. As active duty military, students can earn GI Bill money for education.

12. Leverage your athletic ability. Sports scholarships have long been a path to college for talented athletes. Turn that God-given talent into a degree than can last a lifetime.

In the end, choosing debt should be done with a calculator and a good understanding of the long -term implications. In general, for parent or students, only 5 percent of after-tax, spendable income should go to debt repayment. When student debt (or any consumer debt) devours more than 8 percent of available income, financial stress will dramatically increase and may turn the dream degree into a nightmare.

Don’t be emotionally blackmailed into crushing debt for the hope of a job. Your options are limitless, but your debt shouldn’t be.

Chuck Bentley is CEO of Crown, a non-profit business and personal finance policy and educational organization, and author of "The S.A.L.T. Plan. How to Prepare for an Economic Crisis of Biblical Proportions" and "Root of Riches, What if everything you think about money is wrong?"