University of Southern Maine freshman Matt Clark said he thought long and hard about paying for college before deciding where he would go.

For some students, it’s the other way around: Apply to schools where you want to go, then figure out how to pay for it no matter what the tuition costs.

“When I was thinking college, I was thinking smart budget decisions,” said Clark, 18, of Camden.

He didn’t have money saved up for college, and he had heard the horror stories of students going into debt to pay for college.

“I know the crippling loan debt people can end up in,” Clark said. “I am very much trying to avoid the loans.”

He could have gone to Wheaton College in Massachusetts, a private college where tuition, room and board costs about $40,000 a year. Even after a generous financial aid offer, it still would have meant going into debt.

“It was great, but I would have had to take out $10,000 or $20,000 in loans to go there,” he said.

Instead, he picked USM, where a “great financial aid package” covers all but a few hundred dollars a year of his tuition, and he can live with his father in Portland rent-free. He doesn’t have a car, works in the student activities office in a work-study job and makes a point of keeping his costs down.

“I’m really, really hoping I’ll be able to keep this financial plan going,” said Clark, who is undeclared so far but leaning toward political science.

“A few of my family members have said this, and it really resounded with me: ‘It’s not where you go for an education, it’s what you do with it.’ I think that’s really true.”

But all around him, students talk about their debt – and how hopelessly huge the looming debt seems.

“I hear students talk about all the loans they have and I just don’t say anything,” Clark said. “I’ve heard humorous things, like students saying, ‘I want to be a professional student when I grow up, because they can’t force me to pay the loans if I’m a student.’”

“I just feel bad for them, because obviously they just want a quality education. In a competitive world, it’s so important to get that degree,” he said.