Can you do it? Should you do it? As that college acceptance letter compels you to say "yes" or "no" around May 1, run through a few last considerations as you weigh one of the largest financial commitments of your lifetime.
Three elements are key: that the college won't leave a student buried too deeply in debt; that a college won't leave a parent with such a huge financial commitment that retirement isn't affordable; and that the expensive college that's caught a student's eye is really worth it compared to another quality, but cheaper, option.
The last issue is the most difficult for most families to answer with confidence. They often debate whether the cachet of a prestigious college is worth the extra cost or whether a more affordable school will do. In this era of job difficulties, career questions are important, although getting clear information from colleges is difficult.
If there is time to visit the college before the decision, you should ask graduating students whether they have found jobs in their field and whether the college has helped them get the positions. Ask about their friends' job options, too, keeping in mind that students in science, math and engineering might be fine at almost any school, but those with other majors might need some extra help from college career offices - help that is often in short supply.
According to some estimates, about half of students who recently completed college ended up in jobs that didn't require college degrees. So if you are seeking a pedigree from an elite college so you can get a better job, you might ask whether the college you are considering actually fulfills that role.
Since solid internships can lead to jobs, ask college career offices for a list of specific internships offered only to students from that institution. That's different than simply being shown to a computer that lists internships that students everywhere compete for.
Also, seek the list of employers that recruit for jobs on campus - noting job descriptions, not just the employers' names. Do the jobs fit a particular student's major? Colleges do a poor job of sharing job outcomes, but try to get information, keeping in mind that the government tracks what's called "gainful employment" from each college. Again, if it's a pedigree and a ticket to a job that you are after, make sure you are getting it.
Research by Alan Krueger, a professor at Princeton, and Stacy Berg Dale of the Andrew Mellon Foundation found that attending an elite college didn't end in higher pay than less elite schools for top students from affluent families. But lower-income students, with less-developed personal networks of contacts, did increase their earnings by attending prestigious colleges. But students at elite schools who didn't rank at the top were disadvantaged in competing for jobs.
Students need to think prior to college what their education will cost and whether their loan burden will be tolerated, given their likely career and earnings. To check possible salaries, see Anthony Carnevale's report "What's It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors," at http://bit.ly/17lbIIg .
As a rule you shouldn't borrow more than your annual salary, or commit more than 8 to 10 percent of your take-home pay to student loans. Carnevale, of Georgetown University, found petroleum engineers earning about $120,000 - an amount that would easily tolerate the average college loans of $27,000. But a psychology major earning just $29,000 might think twice, especially if graduate school will add additional debt.
Look at what monthly loan payments will be at http://mnstr.me/8cwYSF and compare payments to likely take-home pay using http://bit.ly/17XizZw . See that for $27,000 in federal Stafford loans, with a 6.8 percent interest rate, the student will owe about $310 a month - a large amount when taking home only about $2,000 a month on a $30,000 salary that needs to cover everything from rent to car payments.
Although parents can fund the entire cost of college using federal PLUS loans with 7.9 percent interest rates, the move can be dangerous for parents short on retirement savings. To be OK in retirement, you will want at least eight times what you earn annually the full year before retirement. To get a clearer picture, run the "ballpark" estimate at www.choosetosave.org, and realize that working longer might not be effective. About half of people are forced by illness or layoffs to retire before expected.
Gail MarksJarvis is a personal finance columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of "Saving for Retirement Without Living Like a Pauper or Winning the Lottery." Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org