Setting limits: Advice on paying for college

How are you paying for college?

These days, the price of education is moving higher and higher. But how do you decide if it's worth the investment? How do you pay for the costs? Beyond the numbers we hear -- that student debt has exceeded $1 trillion, that the cost of college has risen faster than inflation -- there's an emotional part of this equation. Education isn't like any other commodity. Many families face a balancing act: You want to give your child the best option, but you don't know how to talk about what you can afford. We've asked Michelle Singletary, a personal finance columnist for the Washington Post, to provide some guidance on how to cope with the costs of college.

Singletary has some real-world experience with the issue. Her daughter recently started her freshman year in college. And Singletary is determined to make sure that her daughter graduates debt free. Singletary says she started talking about paying for college with her children when they were young, sacrificing things to save for their college funds. For her family, talking about paying for college has been a life-long conversation.

"We have a zero debt policy as far as education when it comes to my family. Now people are out there [saying], 'This woman has lost her everlasting mind.' But if you have that going into it, then you do the things that it takes to make sure that happens. Now here's what we recognize: that that might mean that she's not going to the top school that she wants to go to if we didn't save enough."

Singletary says her policy limited her daughter's choices.  But, she says too many parents give their kids a blank check and allow them to apply to any schools they want -- only figuring out how to pay for it later and causing debt to pile up.

"Life is about limits," she says. "I see far too many families [taking on debt]. And then the kids can't handle the debt. The parents can't handle the debt because not only are they taking on the student loan debt, but they're not saving for their retirement because of this debt. And then just everyday life expenses. You need to put limits. You say, 'I want you to have the best in life, but I want to have the best in life that you can afford.' That is an awesome lesson to teach your child going forward."

There are some people who say that taking on debt for education is OK -- good even -- because you're investing in your future. Singletary disagrees.

"There is no such thing as good debt and bad debt. There is only debt," says Singletary. "What we're finding is, particularly now, people are taking on too much debt. And the jobs that they're getting, the income that they're getting, in this economy is not enough to service a lot of that debt. Because we've given people a blank check and said go, this is good debt, they've taken on too much. What we're finding is a lot of kids coming out of college, they can't get the jobs that they think they were going to get for the amount of debt that they've taken on."

Singletary shared some advice with two parents trying to figure out how to pay for college.

Catherine from Cleveland, Miss., has a daughter who is a senior at Tulane University. She and her daughter have both taken out loans to pay for her college. But, she has a 16-year-old daughter, Rebecca, who has aspirations of her own that could possibly take her beyond the Mississippi Delta. She's wondering how she will pay for her younger daughter's college education and what she should be thinking about in the next few years to prepare.

Antonio from St. Paul, Minn., works as a restaurant manager. He attended a private art school and now has to pay back thousands of dollars in loans.   He has been helping to raise his son, a junior in high school. He wants to make more money to help pay for his son's upcoming expenses, but wonders whether he should pursue another degree in the next few years or stay in his current field. 

Click play on the audio player above to hear the conversations.

About the author

Lizzie O'Leary is the new host of Marketplace Weekend.

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