STUDENT LOANS are the devil's toboggan slide. Sure, they help you magically afford (hopefully just) four years of a soothing dip in the purifying waters of academia—but at what price? Eventually you'll be booted back into the real world, probably without a decent job prospect (nice work, philosophy majors!) and six figures of debt that not even a bankruptcy filing will clear away.

So what can you do, besides writing sad, pleading letters to your estranged rich uncle? It's pretty simple: Try not to borrow money. Work as hard as you can to gin up as much cash as possible through grants, scholarships, graduate-teaching positions, work-study, fellowships, part-time jobs, etc. You'll be glad you did!

And if you still have to borrow a bit to pay for books and tuition? Do your homework and don't be an idiot.

"The biggest thing to do is for students to sit with a financial aid counselor and understand what opportunities and packages will best help them," says Cindy Skaruppa, Portland State's associate vice president for enrollment management.

That means learning the difference between loans that are "subsidized" (you won't rack up interest until you graduate) and loans that aren't (sucks to be you).

That means taking enough credits so you can actually graduate in four years—so instead of having to borrow more money, you'll be out of school and hopefully working to pay down your debts.

That means using your credit cards responsibly. Don't be afraid to sign up for one—especially if it offers reasonable terms—and start building up good credit. But if you can't handle a card, you'll be facing a lengthy battle with credit problems. And some private lenders, says Skaruppa, look at things like credit scores, and that could affect interest rates. Try a line of credit instead—you still have a borrowing limit, but the interest is way kinder.

And, most importantly, borrow only as much money as you need. If you can borrow $20,000 a year, but all you need is, say, $15,000 for school and living expenses, do NOT borrow the extra cash. You might feel fancy now, drinking top-shelf booze and jetting somewhere crowded and tropical over spring break. But...

Warns Skaruppa: "It's going to cost you later."