High school seniors are making final plans for next year, imagining a big broad world ahead. But, especially for those going to college, their young adulthood may not be so broad or independent.

(Butch Dill)

Everyone from the president to any parent with a calculator has railed against the rising cost of college and the increasing reliance on education loans. But the rhetoric has yet to change the worsening trend.

This past weekend, the New York Times published a harrowing examination of the issue:

“With more than $1 trillion in student loans outstanding in this country, crippling debt is no longer confined to dropouts from for-profit colleges or graduate students who owe on many years of education, some of the overextended debtors in years past. Now nearly everyone pursuing a bachelor’s degree is borrowing...

Ninety-four percent of students who earn a bachelor’s degree borrow to pay for higher education — up from 45 percent in 1993, according to an analysis by The New York Times of the latest data from the Department of Education. This includes loans from the federal government, private lenders and relatives.”

The story, by Andrew Martin and Andrew W. Lehren, went on to describe the real-life impact for a number of students, including one graduating from a small private school in Ohio. She plans to live at home and hold down two restaurant jobs to try to pay her $900-a-month loan bill.

What can a parent do?

I asked Sally Koslow, author of the soon-to-be-published, “Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest,” (Viking, June 2012).

Koslow, a longtime magazine editor and mother of two, said, if possible, the problem should be tackled before college or graduate school.

“It isn’t the American way for parents to be buzz-kills who say no to kids, but mothers and fathers should take the student debt debacle into account when college planning begins, and make sure their child understands the long-term financial burden of, say, choosing the costlier, razzle-dazzle private college over a more affordable public school…

“What’s most important is transparency about what a family can or can’t afford and for both generations to understand what they’re taking on, along with candor about how undergraduate or graduate school will prepare the student for a job.”

She said the discussion should also take into account what a student plans to do in college.

“Does the country need another dance major with a minor in the sociology of fashion? Is there a solid plan? And is the student committed to getting a bachelor’s degree in four years? Many [undergrads] now take five or six years to finish college, which hikes up long-term costs.”

Good advice in theory, but certainly there are circumstances when a prospective student will need to take a loan. Even public schools these days have astronomical tuitions.

When a loan is necessary, should a parent co-sign for a loan?

Compassion suggests yes.

Koslow says no.

“If the student needs loans, they should be the child’s loans, not the parent’s,” Koslow said.

Compassion comes in later. “Certainly, if a parent can afford to, they can perform loving financial triage by helping a child repay debt.”

What do you think? Should parents limit their child’s college choice? Or major? Do they have an obligation to co-sign for an education loan?

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