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Can my daughter afford to go to college?

July 20, 2012: 10:43 AM ET

My daughter is planning to start at the University of Illinois at Chicago this fall. She did not qualify for assistance, due to my income level. The college is giving her $5,500, leaving her with a balance of $27,912 per year. My wife and I cannot afford to pay any portion of her tuition and we have no savings. When she was turned down for Stafford loans the loan officers said we might qualify for a Parent Plus loan or might be able to co-sign a loan for her. We don't want this to negatively affect our credit score, which is already below 600. What can we do? ― D.M.

If you don't have any savings, you can't afford to pay any of your daughter's tuition, and you have a hurting credit score, it's clear that you and your wife would be sorely stretched by $100,000 in college loans. The problem is that having your daughter borrow that amount could put her finances in jeopardy as well. "Parents risk missing out on saving for retirement if they borrow that much," says Anna Sergunina, a college planning specialist for MainStreet Financial Planning in Odenton, Md. "But it's very hard to start out a career with $100,000 in student loans, too."

Unfortunately, it appears that neither you nor your daughter can afford four years at this school, given the figures you've supplied. Saving for college takes time, and while financial aid and tax credits can offset some of the price tag, there's no easy way to close a $100,000 shortfall in such little time.

But you still have options. If you can't afford that particular school, consider starting off with community college, Sergunina suggests. "The first two years are typically general studies, which cost a lot less at community college, and you and your daughter may be able to cover the costs with your current cash flow," she says. The City Colleges of Chicago—a collection of seven schools around Chicago—charge local students just $89 per credit hour. At those rates, a full course load of 30 credits a year would cost just $2,670.

Once her first two years are completed, your daughter may be able to transfer to University of Illinois at Chicago to complete her degree. And with the help of grants and student aid, as well as any savings you can manage in the meantime, she may be able to graduate without either of you taking on a dangerously burdensome amount of debt.

— Austin Kilham

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