Every high school student has probably heard the saying “it’s never too early to start planning for your future” that likely elicits an eye roll from any teenager. And, like the “boomer” my son jokes that I am, I have to attest that this saying rings true.

Everyone is probably an expert at some type of preparation. An athlete knows the steps to prepare for an important event. A musician can practice for a concert. Prepping for college is also a process, and it can be dizzying: Applying, registering and enrolling, new vocabulary that you are expected to just know, hard deadlines, and a line-up of tests. And the stakes are high.

College debt is no laughing matter, so you want to be sure you have a plan to pay for your plan.

Let’s start with a top priority: scholarships and financial aid. In a previous column, my colleague Charlie Dexter makes the case that college is a wise investment. However, you don’t want to be saddled with student loans. In the US, the average student loan debt total per person is $31,172 (In Alaska, it’s slightly lower at ~$26,000 per person). The average monthly student loan payment is $393, and is paid off in an average of 10-30 years. It is no wonder that student loans are now the second largest debt category in the US. The lesson from this is to take steps to avoid taking out student loans.

Parents and guardians — check out the University of Alaska 529 College Savings Plan for some fantastic ways to save for your child’s education. High school students — utilize your summers wisely: Consider setting aside a portion of each paycheck to offset college tuition. Invest time in applying for scholarships; every year thousands of dollars of scholarship money sits unused. In fact, Anna Gagne-Hawes, associate director of UAF Admissions, recommends juniors start looking at scholarships now and plan to take the SAT/ACT this spring.

Make personal connections! Get to know those high school advisers and teachers to get help with college planning. Ask lots of questions. These folks are also handy when you need letters of reference.

I recently spoke with Annie Dougherty, the head teacher at FOCUS Homeschool program. She suggests these three steps to help all students from any school program be more financially prepared when they leave high school:

1. Prepare to be prepared — Plan your high school course work and experiences to get you financially prepared for your future. By having an idea of what direction you want go in after high school, college or career, you can choose courses that will prepare, and perhaps give you a head start in that direction, allowing you to qualify for a variety of scholarship opportunities. Also take advantage of training and volunteer experiences that will give you valuable skills and connections.

Students who have an idea of potential career paths can avoid wasted tuition, time, and coursework. Taking a Consumer Math class can help you develop a responsible financial mindset.

2. Take advantage of the Alaska Performance Scholarship – Every high school student should plan on taking the ACT, SAT, and/or WorkKeys tests early to achieve the highest level of the APS. By adequately preparing for these tests, students can earn up to $4,755 for two to four years toward certificate or college programs.

High school counselors and homeschool advisory teachers are available to help students prepare for tests, choose appropriate curriculum and courses, set goals and time lines, and to complete FAFSA paperwork, all to assure they are eligible for the scholarship.

3. Attend local workshops and career fairs – These happen throughout the year and are open to all students. High schools often host financial aid workshops, so start attending them before senior year.

Local homeschool staff and UAF/CTC staff have formed a partnership, Golden Heart Homeschool Network, which hosts a variety of programs throughout the year to helps high schools students learn about college costs, applying for financial aid and scholarships, writing scholarship essays and resumes, developing job interview skills, and networking with local employers and professional organizations.

A little preparation has big payoffs: It will help college-bound students start their adult years informed about decisions which lead to debt or financial freedom. Don’t put off making a plan.

Yeah, I might be a “boomer” but this boomer is not paying off any college loans!

Jennifer Tilbury is the director of Student Success and an associate professor of Developmental Writing at UAF Community and Technical College. She lives in Fairbanks with her husband and three kids. She is not paying off any student loans.