I'm not sure if you can tell how much I really, really, really hated wearing a cap and gown. I attempted to convince the people I sat with during graduation to join me in a protest against caps and gowns and take them off, but they thought we might not be allowed to graduate if we did that so I conformed.
These are the strategies that I think are the most helpful:
1. Go to a community college.
Or get as many college credits as you can in high school. Community colleges tend to be far less expensive than state or private universities. This is one of the strategies my brother and sister are using, they've already finished their first two years of college debt-free at a CC--it's true that the educational standards may not be as high as at an elite school--but your degree will be from whichever 4 year university you graduate from, and I'm sure future prospective employers will not be digging through your transcripts to see whether you took English 101 at a community college or at a state university.
2. Get as many scholarships as you can.
As much as I try to hide it, it turns out that I'm a nerd. Not the wears-fake-glasses nerd, a real one. I scored in the 99th percentile on my SAT and ACT exams (yeah, I took both) and my tuition and books and college fees were completely paid for through a combination of several academic scholarships that required me to have a GPA above 3.75 throughout college (I graduated with a 3.989--because of one professor who said "I don't give As" and gave me an A- instead. I'm still a little bitter.). I was blessed, and definitely hit the jackpot where scholarships were concerned, but you don't have to be a geek to earn valuable scholarships. There are scholarships for just about anything you could think of! Angel also had a significant portion of his education paid for with scholarships--none of which were academic, but were based on other factors such as his major (nursing) and the fact that he was a 1st generation college student. Many scholarships you have to apply for individually, and it takes time, but its worth it!
As nice as it may sound, you do not need to devote all of your times to classes and socialization as a college student. Part-time jobs abound--and if you can work at your college, all the better! I put gas in my car working as an "ironing girl" (that's what my employer called me) and tutoring philosophy, religion, and business students. Angel cleaned on-campus apartments and worked as a receptionist in our college health center. My sister is paying her way through college right now working as a manager at a screen-printing shop. My brother is doing the same thing by working at a hat kiosk at the mall and tutoring math students. The jobs aren't glamorous, but they're experience to put on your resume and money for that tuition bill.
4. Cut living costs
When I attended my college, the cost of living in the dorms and eating in the dining halls was something crazy--$8,000 a year, I think. My scholarships didn't cover that, so my grandparents took me in for the first 5 semesters of college till I got married, and I brought turkey and cheese sandwiches to school every day for lunch (post-college: I no longer eat sandwiches). My younger brother and sister live with my other grandparents right now so that they are able to attend school--sure, their basement bedrooms with curtains for walls might not sound as cool as an apartment of their own...but they don't pay rent. It's amazing how much more money you can save or put toward tuition when you live with people who love and support you enough to not charge you fair-market rent price. This strategy can also work if you're trying to pay off loans you already have--Angel moved back in with his parents for a year and a half after college. Of course, you might PREFER to be independent...but if you're blessed with loved ones who are willing to host you, you need to consider how much your preference is worth...and let me tell you, it's not worth getting into debt for a preference.
5. Get a practical degree.
This is not the most popular opinion these days, but here it is--do NOT go 100K into debt to study an arts subject that you're really interested in when you know that factually, you'll be lucky to get a job making 30K a year in that area. If you can go through college without debt and know that you'll live just fine on a smaller income, go ahead, study what you love--but if that's not the case for you, read books in your spare time about the things you're interested in, and go for a degree where you know jobs exist. I am immensely proud of Angel for choosing this option. He didn't choose nursing because he'd wanted to be a nurse since childhood and had lofty dreams and romantic visions of being a nurse....he chose nursing because he was pretty sure he wouldn't have the patience for anything more than a bachelor's degree, and he also knew that jobs in the healthcare industry are steadier than most and that he could support his family with that degree. (If Angel would have studied what most interested him, it would have been philosophy. See why I'm glad he chose to be practical?)
6. Don't go to college at all.
College IS a good idea for a lot of people, but not for everybody, and while it may seem like it, it's not the only way to get a steady job. There are much more inexpensive options which will provide you with skills: getting licensed as a cosmetologist or a CNA, apprenticing to become a mechanic or electrician or plumber--those are just a few examples of practical jobs that don't require a 4 year bachelor's degree. You could get licensed in one of these professions and use the above-minimum-wage income to help you pay your way through college afterwards (many CNAs use this route). Or, if you like your job, are skilled at it, and earn enough to live on--realize that even though it may seem like it these days, college isn't the only option. Actually, when I think about it, quite a lot of my favorite people in the whole wide world don't have a college degree...that "piece of paper" can offer up job opportunities, but it doesn't automatically make you any more well-rounded of a person.
6. Make paying off loans a priority.
If you already have loans, obviously most of this advice doesn't apply to you. But simply know that the pay-back schedules that they give you don't mean that you can't pay off your loans faster if you so desire. Angel graduated from college about 23K in debt, even after scholarships and working, so he promptly moved in with his parents, worked a lot of extra shifts and holidays, paid way more than the minimum monthly payments, and was out of debt in less than 1.5 years. Even though Angel had college loan debt, he says that he "got lucky" and was one of the few for whom taking college loans is better than not taking loans. Everything lined up right for him--if he hadn't taken loans, he wouldn't have been able to attend college at all. He did take the loans, actually finished college (many people with student loan debt don't actually finish their degrees but of course still have to pay), got hired right out of school into a job which paid a good salary, and, at the time, was a bachelor without family obligations and had parents who were very happy to have him living with them. Sometimes loans ARE the best or only option, but those cases are not as common as you might believe.