PALM DESERT, Calif. -

For many, student loan debt is a scarlet letter they wear hidden.  But even those with debt in the tens of thousands of dollars are not alone.

Today, three-fourths of American college graduates leave school with student loan debt.  The average: $30,000 per person.

"That's like an expensive car, but that's not my only payment. I have a car payment, insurance, rent," said Kalissa Perez of Mountain Center, who amassed $65,000 in loans from the Art Institute.

You might call it the high price of hope: students taking on outrageous amounts with the hope and expectation they'll find a job that pays.        

But salaries aren't keeping up with the cost of education. Nationally, student loan debt now surpasses credit card debt, and even declaring bankruptcy won't erase the burden of student loans.
 
"A 21-year-old already being in debt is a little heartbreaking," said Alejandro Escobar of Cathedral City, who racked up $32,000 in loans at the Santa Barbara Business College.

"Just to leverage my career, I'm accruing more debt and I'm not making any money," shared Dawn Diaz of her situation as a graduate student at University of Redlands with more than $50,000 in loans.

So what can students do?

We scoured the sites of lenders, scholarship organizations, lenders and of course FAFSA to compile a list of student loan tips, whether you're in college, preparing to enroll, or already graduated with debt:

1. Apply for scholarships and grants before and during college. 

2. Save before enrolling.  Work part-time during school, and full-time during the summer to save or even start paying off interest as it accrues. 

3. Research careers and starting pay for entry level positions.  Hint: math and science fields tend to pay more for starter positions.

4. Consider enrolling at a school with a "no loans" financial policy.  Dozens of the most selective schools have adopted this policy and help replace loans with need-based grants.

5. When borrowing, start with federal loans. They're cheaper and offer better repayment plans.

6. Save on room and board.  If you can, save rent by living at home, or reduce it by having a roommate.

7. Start paying back the loan immediately. Don't wait for the 6-month grace period to end, get into a disciplined routine of paying as much as you can each month.

8. Set a budget, stick to it and live within your means.

9. Pay off the highest-interest rate loans first so that they don't continue to balloon.

10. If you find yourself deep in debt, look into Loan Forgiveness Programs - they can cancel debt for teaching, non-profit and other public service jobs.