Dear Prudence: My husband and I were not able to save for our kids' college educations. My older son went to community college and most of it was paid for with grants and scholarships. Now my younger son is a senior in high school and has his heart set on an expensive private school. Call us naive, but to say we have sticker shock would be an understatement.

Even though he was given a very generous package and is pursuing scholarships, it will still cost $30,000 a year, $120,000 over the four years. If he were to borrow this money it would leave him with crippling debt. We are not in the position to pay this or take on the loans ourselves.

We want him to live at home, go for two years to a public university satellite campus, then move to the main campus as a junior for a total cost of about $50,000. Our state university is one of the top public universities in the country. My husband's family thinks we are doing him a great disservice by not co-signing for his loans or taking them ourselves. Are we shortchanging our son?

Prudence says: I promise you all of you will feel shortchanged and sold a bill of goods if your son's college degree means that you and your husband spend the rest of lives sweating to pay it off, or that your son starts his adult life with a staggering financial burden. Now is decision time for students weighing college options. It used to be people thought a college degree (especially an elite one) was a ticket to a financially secure life, and that going into debt to obtain one was a good investment. There is no doubt college graduates fare better in the marketplace, but today people are far more aware of the potential dream-crushing effect of college debt, and that it can carry lifetime consequences, including the fact it can virtually never be discharged. Some interesting research has shown that the value of a "prestige" degree, at least as far as future income is concerned, is vastly overrated.

You say your state school is one of the country's best, while the private school your son has his heart set on you describe merely as "expensive." Good for your son to have identified and been accepted to a dream school. That shows he has drive and ambition, which are two crucial qualities he will need in the real world. For him right now, reality looks like it means making the most of the opportunities at his state school.

If your husband's family thinks the private school is worth it, they are free to step up and make it possible. In the absence of their largesse, you should stick with your plan of getting your son the best education you can afford. I recommend that you thoroughly research your aid options. Before you put down a deposit, talk to both the private and state school and make sure you're getting every (debt-free) dollar available. If the dream school doesn't offer substantially more cash, everyone should be delighted with the public alternative. But since he is surely ready to give up his boyhood bedroom, it would be a great gift if you found there was grant money available to make it possible for him to start college life on the main campus this fall.

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