What to Do When You Can't Afford Your Child's College Education

First comes the joy: Your child receives the thick packet from a dream university, the sure sign of an acceptance.

But then comes the reality: that sky-high price tag.

The college your child has just been accepted to might be asking for $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 or more in tuition each year. And if your child doesn't receive much, or anything, in merit-based scholarships from that school, you and your child will be responsible for covering those costs — often in the form of student loans that can haunt your child's finances for decades after graduation. (See also: 5 Sobering Facts About Student Loan Debt)

What if you haven't saved nearly enough to help cover these costs? What if you haven't managed to save anything at all? What can parents do when they can't afford their child's college education?

The choice usually comes down to taking on tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt or attending a less expensive alternative school. And if you can't afford the tuition at any school, there are still options in the form of scholarships, grants, and community college. (See also: 40+ College Resources for Parents and Students)

Rising costs

Tuition rates continue to rise every year. Especially at private universities, this means that tuition that is already intimidating becomes a bit more of a financial burden with each passing year.

In its 2016 report, the College Board said that the average annual sticker price — including tuition, fees, and room and board — stood at $20,090 for in-state students at public colleges, and $35,370 for out-of-state students. The average for private colleges was $45,370 in 2016.

There is a glimmer of good news here: Many students don't pay this full price. That's because many students receive scholarships (many offered automatically by the schools that accept them) and grants. According to the College Board's 2016 report, the net price of college — the price showing what students actually pay after they receive financial assistance — was $14,210 a year for tuition, fees, and room and board for in-state students at public colleges, and $26,080 for students at private colleges.

The fact still remains that after financial assistance, paying for college is no easy task, even at more affordable public universities.

Student loan burden

Student loan debt is a financial burden for many college graduates. According to Student Loan Hero, the average college graduate from the class of 2016 has $37,172 in student loan debt, a record high. But for many students, there is no other way to pay for college.

If you can't afford to help pay for your child's college education, student loans are an alternative. The loans, though, are far from a perfect solution. First, students can only borrow from $5,500 to $12,500 in federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans. Federal student loans are the best option because they come with the lowest interest rates and most favorable repayment terms.

Students who must borrow more each year will have to take out private loans. Their parents can also take out private student loans for their children. Those often come with higher interest rates and less favorable terms.

Relying completely on student loans could also set you or your children up for a tough financial future after they graduate, especially if they struggle to land a decent paying job. (See also: 8 Surprising Ways to Pay Off Your Student Loans)

A more affordable school

Your child might dream of attending that elite private school, but an in-state public university might be a more affordable choice that can provide your child with an equally strong education.

Explain to your children that an out-of-state private school might be a dream destination, but might also negatively affect their financial health for decades after graduation.

Students might also attend an in-state public school for two years, taking the general education classes that they are required to complete. They can then apply again to their dream university for the final two years of their undergraduate career. This can make their entire college career more affordable.

There's also community college. Community colleges are a far more affordable alternative to both private and public four-year colleges. Attending a community college for at least two years could leave graduates with far less student loan debt after graduation.

Sources of additional help

Many colleges automatically provide merit scholarships to incoming students, which students never have to repay. Colleges will automatically provide this financial assistance to the students they accept; students don't have to do anything to apply.

Merit scholarships can make private universities far more affordable. Private schools generally pass out more of this aid to attract students who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford tuition at these schools.

If your child is accepted at a school but doesn't receive any or enough merit aid directly from the university, you can always contact the institution's office of admissions or financial aid. Often, schools will allow you to fill out a hardship form as a way to request additional financial support. Colleges aren't required, of course, to provide more aid, but some might. A phone call could make a difference.

Also search for scholarships. Your child might qualify for hundreds of scholarships, some offering significant financial help. Winning these scholarships isn't always easy, with many attracting thousands of applicants. But even earning one or two scholarships can help cut down the expense of a college education. (See also: Where to Find Scholarships)

Your children can also work on a part-time basis to help afford tuition. Colleges usually offer their own work-study programs that can help defray expenses. Students who volunteer to serve as residential advisers at campus dorms might receive free or discounted room and board.

You might even be able to significantly reduce your child's yearly college costs by convincing your child to attend a school close enough to home so that your student can continue living with you. Room and board generally costs about $10,000 a year; if your child lives at home, he or she can eliminate this cost.

College education remains an expensive proposition. But you and your child do have options, if you look for them.

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