With the soaring cost of a college education, it's getting harder and harder for students to be completely debt free when they graduate. Many students do get loans through private or federal sources but some still use their credit cards to help them make ends meet.

Recently, CardRatings.com teamed up with Chef2Chef.net, a culinary community and directory of culinary arts schools, on a poll asked readers if they had any student loan debt on their credit cards. The good news is that 64 percent said they had zero student debt on their cards. But here's the bad news: This means that 36% are paying off credit card debt they acquired to make it through college.


Here's how the results of our poll break down:

  • None = 64%
  • Less than $5,000 = 12%
  • Between $5,000 - $10,000 = 7%
  • Between $10,000 - $20,000= 7%
  • Over $20,000 = 10%


What are they putting on their cards? According to a 2009 study by Sallie Mae, 92% of undergraduate credit card holders used their cards to pay for textbooks, school supplies, and other college expenses. And 30% used their credit cards to pay for tuition. Compared to previous studies done by Sallie Mae, the percent of students relying on credit cards to pay for college rose in 2009.

There are obvious downsides to carrying debt on credit cards. You end up paying so much more for your education because you're paying interest expense on top of the already high tuition fees. If you're carrying a large amount of credit card debt on a high-interest card, consider making a balance transfer to a card with a zero percent or low-interest introductory APR. Of course, whether or not this is an option will depend on your credit history.

Since the CARD Act became effective, students access to credit cards is limited. The legislation that became effective on February 22, 2010 prevents anyone under the age of 21 from obtaining a card without a co-signer unless they have proof they can repay any debt they incur. Since there are now a lot of restrictions on students' access to credit cards, it's unlikely that college-related expenses on credit cards will continue to rise next year. In fact, the lack of easily accessible credit card options as well as lower credit limits to those with limited credit history is likely to force students to pursue other types of financing.

If you're on a quest for funds (or if you have a child in college who needs financial help), one of the first places to check out is FinAid.org, where you can learn about the different loan and financial aid options. One of the best  options to consider is a federal Stafford loan, which is a fixed-rate student loan for undergraduate and graduate students who attend college at least half-time. The current rate for unsubsidized loans is 6.8% (the rate goes as low as 5.6% if you qualify for a subsidized Stafford loan). The average rate for a student credit card is 13.96%, so when you compare that to a 6.8% Stafford loan, the right choice seems obvious. This is assuming, of course, that you get approved for the loan.

If you've exhausted the possibilities for free money and traditional or federal loans, it might be time to think outside the box and pursue alternative methods of college financing. For instance, some students are getting loans through person-to-person lending (P2P lending) websites such as People Capital, a site that focuses on student loans. LendingClub and Prosper are also P2P lenders, but you'll need a credit history and a credit score of 660 and 640, respectively, to qualify for a loan on these sites.

But if you do have a credit card and you need to put some of your college expenses on your card, keep track of how much your spending and don't buy anything that isn't absolutely necessary. Your goal should be to pay off the credit card debt every month and to do so by the due date. If you use your credit card responsibly, you can turn this into an opportunity to build a good credit history.

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