Politicians responding to our country's astonishing $1.2 trillion student loan debt have offered solutions ranging from free college tuition to debt forgiveness.

But parents of college-bound kids hold the key to an equally effective strategy. This one begins at the kitchen table with a straightforward conversation about money and how it's best spent on a college education.

Obvious, yes? But teens commonly e-mail dozens of applications to dream schools without once hearing from Mom or Dad about the financial pitfalls that likely face them down the road.

The average debt load has soared to nearly $35,000, compared with about $10,000 in the mid-1990s, according to Ed Grocholski, a senior vice president at Junior Achievement (JA) USA. His program offers financial and work readiness training in K-12 schools nationwide, including to 160,000 students in the Twin Cities and region.

Nearly 70 percent of graduating college students today have outstanding student loans, compared with about half the graduating class of 20 years ago, he said. Some young adults will be hunted and haunted by those loans for 30 years.

"A lot of folks think of this as an adult conversation," Grocholski said. "They're not sure how to approach it with their kids in a way kids will understand. And nobody wants to ratchet back their child's dream."

But parents, we need to start talking.

The good news is that our kids are ready and willing, if not wholly able. A recent JA survey found that 65 percent of teens accept responsibility for paying off their own college loans. But it's unfair to expect them to fully grasp just how life-altering their young and idealistic choices might be.

Junior Achievement, in partnership with the Voya Foundation, has created a stress-reducing guide to get us started at http://tinyurl.com/jrbjfjv. In addition, Grocholski offers helpful tips of his own.

Start talking to kids before college is on their radar. Do your kids get an allowance? Talk about chores and responsibilities that go with that. By around ninth grade, kids should be hearing from you about what you can and cannot contribute to their college funds.

Be candid about your own smart and not-so-smart financial choices. If you've struggled to pay bills, tell them you'd like them not to have the same experience.

Emphasize that college, in general, is a great idea. Tons of data suggest that higher education leads to higher pay and lower unemployment rates. You're in favor of a smart college choice.

But college also is a huge financial investment. Aside from tuition, they need to factor in room and board, books, travel to and from home, possible study abroad and the good likelihood that they will not graduate within four years.

Student loans are a mixed bag. What's the interest rate? Are grants and scholarships offered every year or just for the first year to lower sticker shock?

Be a wise consumer. You and your child are the buyers of this expensive college proposition. Before applying, find out how many graduates land a job related to their field of study within six months. If the school doesn't know, proceed with caution.

There are lots of ways to do college well. I'm a huge believer in community colleges, technical schools and state schools. I also really like the idea of gap years, where young adults travel, volunteer or work to gain more clarity about what a meaningful life looks like to them.

And that really is key. While your child might think she or he wants to attend a well-known private university, Grocholski would have us push to identify what really drives them. "What is their passion?" he asks. "What do they really want to do?"

Sometimes, the answer comes with a delightfully affordable price tag.