As an advisor, I often hear of a student’s (and their parents’) desire to graduate “debt free.” Headlines about skyrocketing tuition have left a lot of people wondering if an education is really even worth paying for, especially when it means taking out debt.

(It is!)

Before we can discuss why loans can sometimes make sense, let’s straighten out the facts.

Fact 1: Average Tuition is High

The average tuition is between $8,893 and $30,094 per year, depending on a variety of factors (such as a public or private institution, or in-state and out-of-state tuition). Not surprisingly, 2-year public schools tend to be the most affordable.

Read: How Much Does College Really Cost?

Fact 2: Average Student Loan Debt is Much Lower

The average student loan debt after graduating with a bachelors degree, however, is much lower, ranging from $25,550 to $39,950, based on the same factors. Based on that, you can calculate in simple (slightly unscientific terms,) student loans are, on average, covering about 25% of the cost of college tuition. A good portion of student aid, then, must come from either family support, or scholarships, grants, etc.

Read: 7 Ways to Be Prepared for FAFSA

Which leads to the big question: when are college loans really worth it?

College loans are worth it when you don’t have other means to pay for college. When the scholarships and grants are used up, but there is still money owed and expenses to be covered, that’s the time to look at loans

Read: The Short Scholarship Survival Guide

Get the Lowest Interest Rates Possible

After scholarships and grants, its time to look at loans. Federal Department of Education Loans come in a variety of shapes and sizes, however almost all offer lower interest rates that anything you can receive in a private education loan from a bank. Of course, do your research - compare and contrast your options - make sure you know the implications of each loan and what it means for your financial outlook following college.

If you’re really not sure, talk to someone in your school’s financial aid office. It’s part of their job to explain your financial aid package to you in detail, so they’ll be happy to help!

Think Like an Investor (Because You Are One!)

It’s important to remember that paying for an education is an investment, and investments are RARELY paid for without accruing some sort of debt. A bachelor’s degree has an average “return on investment” higher than 14%, and most college loans have an interest rate much lower than that. Similar to buying a house or a car (albeit, slightly less tangible), it’s important to educate yourself, and not bite off more that you are comfortable chewing.

Of course, you’ll need less debt if your college is less expensive in the first place. Ask yourself if that means there’s one more school you should apply to.

Authored by Nick Geremia

Nick is an academic advisor for American Honors students. He writes about academic success, college debt, and the undeniable importance of schmooze.