Total student debt now stands at more than $1 trillion, and the College Board reports that the true cost of going to college has more than tripled during the last 40 years from $2,710 in 1973 to $8,893 in 2013. However, it turns out that one thing is even more expensive than going to college -- and that is actually not attending college. 

While the costs are growing at an unprecedented rate, there are three things that can be done to help lower the cost of college.The Pew Center notes that, for those individuals in the Millennials generation -- ages 25 to 32 -- a person with a bachelor's degree or more earns a median salary of $45,500, which is 50% higher than the $30,000 seen by someone with a two-year degree or some college. Yet , for the Silents generation -- individuals born between 1925 and 1942 -- that gap stood at just 15%. This means that, for the younger generations, obtaining a college degree is even more critical.

Even with that in mind, being mindful of the costs is critical. Below are three ways that you can make college as affordable as possible.

Source: Flickr / Svadilfari.

1. Evaluate the true benefits and cost of each college
Deciding which college to attend is an exciting time in the lives of many prospective students and parents. But, all too often, there is little consideration of the combination of both the benefits and costs. At last count, a private, nonprofit college was almost three-and-a-half times more expensive than a public school on average ($30,094 versus $8,893), which would mean the total cost of four years would be almost $85,000 higher. Even if a private school offered a scholarship that cut tuition prices in half, the cost is still $25,000 more.

Also, the listed price may not always be the true net price -- which includes a college's financial aid and other factors -- which varies from college to college. Be sure to use net price calculators for colleges to determine the true cost. 

There are true unquantifiable benefits to attending one school versus another -- whether they be private or public -- and the financial decision should not be the only one guiding the choice of a college. However, it should certainly be included on the checklist for both students considering college, and those already enrolled.

2. Earn credits at other schools
No matter what college a student attends, it's almost certain that there will be a less-expensive place to earn credits. High school students should take advantage of the AP classes that their schools offer. For a fee of $89 and a bit of studying, a student could potentially earn the same amount of credits for a college class at 10% off the price.

Source: Flickr / @RunRockPrincess.

Of course, once a student has enrolled in a college, it's critical to explore whether credits for certain classes can be earned elsewhere. Local community colleges, state schools over the summer, online offerings, or any number of other options can all offer ways to earn cheaper credits. The opportunity to do this, though, will vary from school to school.

Ultimately, this can reduce the cost of college; but it could also mean enough credits are earned to graduate early. This not only reduces the total tuition expenses, but it creates the opportunity to start earning an income as many as six months sooner.

3. Explore all aid options
One other critical step in the affordability process is ensuring that all financial aid options are explored. Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and the necessary applications for gift aid, brings the opportunity to secure aid in the form of grants and waivers that do not have to be repaid. There are also scholarships from the school and organizations outside of it.

Once those options have been explored, look to student loans -- bearing in mind that loans do not reduce the cost of college, but instead have to be paid back with interest -- both from the Federal Government (often with the lowest interest rates), or private lenders. Also consider work-study programs, or other forms of self-help aid, as some employers will help shoulder the cost of college for individuals who work part-time.

When all is said and done, there is, of course, the reality that colleges offer many life benefits, and the rewards often greatly outweigh the costs. These three things, however, can help make the ultimate return even greater as well as help ease the financial strain.