We have a daughter who would love to attend a Catholic college this fall, but she would graduate with $40,000 in debt. She has also been accepted to state universities. I feel torn between a Catholic higher education and her not incurring debt. Any suggestions?

I can personally relate to your concern. With the oldest of seven children just into her college years, my family faces the same question. I recently took a call from a woman on a Catholic radio program. Her daughter had been accepted to a prestigious music college. She wanted to pursue her dream of becoming a professional musician. While the college would provide a small scholarship, the cost was still going to run $37,000 per year. The family had not saved for this, they were already stretched financially, and none of the grandparents were in a position to help.

I expressed concern that the daughter would leave school with $150,000 in debt and without the earning capacity needed to pay it off. I could sense the disappointment on the other end of the line as we wrapped up the discussion.

As a parent, I have a desire to see my children benefit from both a formative Catholic education and one that prepares them for their career calling. But I’m also concerned that today’s parents and students are too easily accepting more debt than they should as part of the financing package — especially when it comes to a degree that doesn’t point to an adequate income to pay off the debts incurred.

Let’s face it. Handling $100,000 or more in student loans is very different for an M.D. than it is for a teacher at a Catholic school. While there are certainly no guarantees that the doctor’s career plans will work out, one can make reasonable assumptions. It is pretty clear that a teacher at a Catholic school will have a limited income even if highly successful. Those heavy debts will become an incredible burden, especially when the graduate starts a family.

I’m a big believer in a multi-prong strategy when it comes to paying for college. This includes the parents saving ahead of time and using current resources to the extent reasonable. In addition, the student should participate in work study and summer work as appropriate. Taking advantage of scholarships is certainly key. Don’t lock into one school too soon. Schools offer dramatically different scholarship funds, depending on their particular recruiting goals. Also remember that grandparents often provide additional support if they have the means.

When the graduate’s income is expected to be limited, I would look for a plan that can repay the debt within five years of graduation. That may mean some pretty radical lifestyle decisions immediately after college to keep expenses low so that the debts can be repaid quickly. My sense is that student debt in the range of $15,000-$20,000 is reasonable in such a situation. With an educational plan where a higher income can at least be anticipated, additional debt is highly likely and is probably reasonable. By following such an approach, the debt burden of college can be reasonably limited. God love you!

Phil Lenahan is President of Veritas Financial Ministries (VeritasFinancialMinistries.com).