If you’re thinking about returning to school, you may have concerns about how best to finance your education. There’s no denying that many graduates face crippling debt.

But getting an education is one of the best investments you can make, even if you have to get student loans to pay for it. And if you borrow wisely, you can minimize the amount you owe and the time it takes to pay it off.

Here are 10 suggestions to help you borrow responsibly:

1. Choose the right school.

Students look for many things in a college or university, including program offering, academic reputation, and convenience. But one important criterion that should not be overlooked is cost. When researching schools, pay careful attention to the net price—that is, the overall cost less any potential financial aid, not including loans. When comparing costs among several institutions, make sure you understand the tuition rates. For example, we at the Extension School list the total tuition rate for a course, whereas many other universities list the tuition by credit hour. (Check out our tuition rates to see how we stack up.)

2. Borrow only what you need.

Technically, you can borrow student loans up to your Cost of Attendance budget, which includes not only tuition and fees, but also other expenses, such as housing, food, and transportation. But, if you only need funds for tuition and fees, then only borrow that amount. You are never required to borrow the maximum, and it is best that you only borrow what you need.

3. Live like a student.

Many of you may be returning to school after years in the workforce, so it’s important to consider that being a student may require a lifestyle change. Don’t borrow loans to subsidize expensive habits. A latte a day could end up costing thousands of dollars in the end.

Check out this loan calculator.

4. Choose federal over private.

In general, federal loans are better than private loans because they have fixed interest rates and more repayment options. See our information about federal loans. Please note that you must be a degree candidate who has been formally admitted to a degree program to qualify for federal loans.

If you must borrow private loans…

5. Do your research.

Be sure to carefully read the terms of the loan before you apply. You may find that you can get a lower rate through a different lender, so explore your options. If you are a member of a credit union, see if they offer student loans because they will likely have better terms than other private lenders. To search for and compare different private lenders, visit elmselect.com and choose Harvard University as your school.

6. Use a cosigner.

Even if you can be credit-approved for a private loan on your own, applying with a cosigner may lower your interest rate and fees.

7. Find alternative resources.

If you’re working, ask your employer if they offer tuition assistance. You should also consider applying for scholarships. You can search for private scholarships online or contact organizations with which you are affiliated to see if they offer any funding. Here are a few scholarship search engines worth checking out:

8. Take advantage of deals.

Ask for student discounts. Borrow or rent your textbooks from the library or through sites like chegg.com instead of buying them. Pack a lunch or eat at the dining hall. Keeping costs down will prevent you from borrowing more. It may also allow you to make loan payments while you’re in school so that you can pay off your loans sooner.

9. Make payments while you’re in school.

There is never a penalty for making payments early. At the very least, try to pay the interest while you’re in school. This will prevent capitalization, which increases the principle amount owed. Access your federal student loan record.

10. Ask for help!

If you have questions about loans or need guidance about how much to borrow, don’t hesitate to contact your financial aid office. 

If you have already borrowed loans and are having trouble making payments, alert your lender or servicer as soon as possible.  You can avoid default as long as you take action. For instance, you may qualify for a forbearance or deferment on your loans. Help is available; you just have to ask for it!