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The college acceptances are rolling in, and so are the financial aid offers, and now it’s time to run the actual numbers. After years of telling your kid, “If you’ll do your part and work hard, we’ll do our part and help pay for college,” you see the reality of “our part” in dollars and cents. And that’s before you figure in the dorm refrigerator and winter wardrobe for your student who is more accustomed to Florida weather.

Suddenly, the savings account you started when they were in diapers (or maybe you just meant to start) seems woefully inadequate. And you really, really don’t want your child to graduate with student debt. What do you do now?

First, here’s what you don’t do: raid your retirement accounts to make up the difference, or stop contributing and direct the money toward college.

The Right Amount of Debt? A Round Number . . .

Consumer law attorney Christine Magee of Dallas, Texas, says the right amount of money for parents to borrow to help their kids pay for college is zero dollars. “Our instinct is to help our children,” she says. “But we are living in a time where many have put away little to no savings for retirement. As living costs rise and life expectancy increases, parents need to be a little selfish and put money away for later instead of borrowing, or worse, co-signing, student loans for their children. I have seen far too many parents invest in their kids only to wind up in bankruptcy,” she says. And bankruptcy, she notes, rarely erases student loan debt — and she has seen people of modest means borrow so that a child won’t have student loan debt. “[Paying for your child’s college] is a lofty goal, and if you can do it, great,” she said.

But if you can’t, be realistic. Things happen. The money you thought was set aside for college may have instead paid for groceries during a layoff. You may have realized, in a panic, that you should have gotten serious about saving before your child’s junior year of high school. What then? She says it’s time for an honest conversation about what parents can do. Options may include the student taking out federal loans. If they stick with federal student loans only, your child will wind up with no more than $31,000 in debt. (That’s the limit for dependent undergraduates; the horror stories you hear of much higher amounts are most often private loans and/or professional training).

When it comes to college costs, that’s not a lot of money, which is good news and bad. It’s good news in that your student is unlikely to be able to saddle himself or herself with unmanageable loans. It’s bad news in that they may be tempted to ask you or their grandparents to co-sign for other loans, and if you or they agree, someone else will be on the hook for the full amount of the debt.

Besides borrowing, the shortfall may leave students with several options, including looking for a discount (scholarships and grants), working, living at home or starting at a community college. And taking out student loans has a couple of positive effects. One is that the student has a stake in finishing his or her education and getting established in a career. A second is that repayment helps give the student a credit history — something that will come in handy in getting a credit card or renting an apartment. (You can get a better idea of what’s helping — and hurting — your credit by seeing your free credit report summary from Credit.com.)

 . . . Or Maybe a Very High One

College financial aid expert Reecy Aresty, author of “How to Pay for College Without Going Broke,” agrees that the first loans taken out should be federal student loans. “Parents should encourage students to max out on their Stafford and Perkins loans to have some ‘skin in the game,'” he says. “If the student balks at loans, then simply send them to community college, and make sure they get a part-time job,” he said. “Beyond that, many parents take on a tremendous responsibility to make sure their kids have a four-year educational experience that will hopefully propel them in the right direction and enable them to pay back their parents.”

So yes, he’s saying that parents, in some cases, could consider taking out loans. He said that it’s not out of the question for parents in their 50s and 60s to borrow the full amount needed with Parent PLUS loans. Once the parents are retired, income-based repayment can help make payments affordable. The loans can be deferred while the student is still in school, and if the parent-borrower dies before the loan is fully paid off, it may result in the loan being discharged.

But the biggest savings, he says, come from preparing — income planning and asset repositioning can be crucial. He points out that students have at least eight opportunities for financial aid while in college (at least once each semester), but students can be more strategic about finding aid before they decide on schools. Once the students have an idea of what they want to learn to do, they can look at colleges that offer the best training and then choose to apply to those that are “very generous” with aid. How generous? He said he appeals 99% of initial aid offers. And lest you think we were kidding about the added expense of winter clothing at the beginning of this post: He was once able to get $2,600 for a student’s cold-weather wardrobe. In another instance, this was what Rensselaer (RPI) called a $500 winter clothing allowance — a grant.

So even if you choose to borrow, first try to make sure you’re getting the best price you can. Because the most dangerous words in choosing and financing a college may be “no matter what it costs.”

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