Imagine a perfect world. A world where you could go to whatever college you want, study whatever you want, take as many classes as you want, and never, ever have to pay for all of it later. You could go into your dream field instead of the one your parents told you will keep you afloat while the fetters of debt attempt to pull you under. Unfortunately, we do not live in that perfect world. According to Zack Friedman’s article in Forbes Magazine, “Student Loan Debt in 2017,” the debt anointed unto students lands them in “the second highest consumer debt category – behind only mortgage debt”. Just last year, the total number of U.S. borrowers with student loan debt was recorded at 44.2 million people, bringing the total student loan debt to a whopping $1.31 trillion, with student loan delinquency at 11.2 percent.

Now that I’ve completely crushed your hope of ever having a financially stable future, there is a light to be found in the midst of this economic darkness. Like all large purchases, if you budget and handle your expenses properly, student loans don’t have to be the terrifying monster under every college student’s dorm bed. To start off, carefully (and I mean carefully) look over all of your financial awards and/or aid given. You will need to know your FAFSA, your legal guardian’s income and any scholarship money you are receiving (whether it comes from your school or an external source). Make sure to contact the financial aid office at your school to accept your awards. Once all that’s squared away, the real work begins.

First, weigh your options as you have lots of them. There is a plethora of loan providers out there waiting for you to sign with them, both federal- and private-run organizations. Be careful, though, some have restrictions on who can apply and the income of those who can receive aid. After talking with a few students who have gone through the process, the two leading providers are Sallie Mae and the Rhode Island Student Loan Association (RISLA).

After you’ve determined which provider to go with, then you have to pick your loan type. There are four kinds of federal loans: direct subsidized loans, direct unsubsidized loans, direct PLUS loans and direct consolidation. The first two are the most common, with schools typically doling out subsidized loans to students demonstrating financial need. These do not accrue interest over time; however, the amount of money you can receive is solely based on your FAFSA, so make sure to apply for that as soon as you can. Unsubsidized loans, on the other hand, do accrue interest over time, but increase in amount as the student progresses in from freshman year to sophomore to upperclassmen years. Direct PLUS loans are taken out by parents of dependent students or by grad students seeking financial assistance.

Now don’t get too excited and sign your bank account away, because now you need to find a cosigner. A cosigner, if you are a dependent, is a parent or legal guardian who makes enough income to take on the shared responsibility of your loans. Both the student and the cosigner will have to contribute information to the loan signing process. If a cosigner is unavailable, your options are slightly restricted, but you are not, I repeat, not out of luck. If this is the case for you, subsidized loans are going to be your best friend. Both Stafford loans and Perkins loans, run through the Department of Education, do not require a cosigner and do not accrue interest.

Next, find a good chunk of time to sit down with your cosigner to fill out the paperwork. This includes your Master Promissory Note (MPN), which relates the terms and conditions of signing the loan agreement. Private providers will often ask for your Social Security Number, phone numbers, addresses, value of assets and income level. These files are very important. Print them, keep them safe and never let them go.

Lastly, do not panic. Applying for student loans seems like a scary process, but there are people whose job it is to help. If you need assistance with applying for loans, do not be afraid to reach out to either Enrollment Services here at URI or the customer service personnel associated with your loan provider.