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College Game Plan

Should You Pay for Your Child’s College Education?

College degrees lead to higher pay, greater career options, and — research suggests — longer lifespans. But parents with college-bound children may feel trapped by the skyrocketing costs of education, which can also last a lifetime.

If you pony up, you could risking your retirement. If you don't, you could be risking your kid's future.

Indeed, the average graduate leaves school with nearly $30,000 in student debt, a sum that will reduce their future retirement savings by more than $300,000, according to a projection by insurance and financial research group Limra.

Likewise, parents' retirement savings are also getting put on the line because of skyrocketing costs. Nearly a third of parents in a T. Rowe Price study admitted they've made the risky choice of tapping their 401(k) plan to save for their kids' college.

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That's a shortsighted move, said Sean T. Keating, a certified financial planner in Eatontown, New Jersey.

"You can always borrow money for college, but you can't borrow money for retirement," Keating said.

What do you do?

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Finding compromise is possible if you plan ahead and follow the right order of operations, said Lazetta Rainey Braxton, a CFP and founder of the wealth advisory firm Financial Fountains.

"Middle income parents need to ensure their own financial stability first," Braxton said. "It's like putting on your airplane oxygen mask before you put on your children's."

Here are three key questions to ask yourself before you decide to open your wallet wide — or slam it shut.

How much can I afford?

One rule of thumb says that to maintain your standard of living, your savings at retirement should be high enough to replace at least 80 percent of your annual income each year, said Keating. Work backward from that assumption to see how much you can actually spare today, he said, also keeping in mind obligations like your mortgage payments and any other debts.

"You have to be aware of what you'd be sacrificing," said Erika Safran, a CFP and president of Safran Wealth Advisors in New York. "Will you run out of money at age 75? You must also consider medical expenses and where you will live."

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In fact, many older adults end up forced to retire earlier than they expected because of illness or other unforeseen events, said Thomas Murphy, a financial planner in Dallas. So it pays to leave plenty of buffer room as you budget out any contribution to your child's college funds.

Am I leaving free money on the table?

Make sure you are doing everything you can to free up easy cash, Safran said. Refinancing a mortgage right now could save you hundreds of dollars a month, for example. If you've done the math and realize you truly can't spare much (or any) cash for your kid's education, don't just leave your child hanging.

"When you simply say you can't pay, that can discourage a kid from applying to schools at all, since he or she might not realize you can actually get application fees waived," Murphy said.

Instead, stay involved in the process and fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — no matter what. Even if your family income is too high for your children to qualify for federal aid, simply having a completed FAFSA gives students the option to apply for merit-based scholarships and other grants a prospective school might offer.

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Finally, remember that it doesn't hurt to exercise a little patience: Consider asking for additional aid before the second semester, since money may have freed up because of first-semester dropouts, Murphy said.

What lesson will my child take away?

Not all high school seniors are academically or emotionally ready for college.

"For some, a year in the working world not only allows them to contribute financially but also gives them a sense of accountability," Keating said. "It might also make them more reasonable in their choice of schools."

Joining the military or starting at a community college before transferring to a four-year school are other options that can save money and give your kids extra runway to mature before college, Keating said.

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Remember that, for your child, choosing a school is not just a financial or academic decision. "It's also an emotional decision," Safran said.

Try to keep an open mind. If your child is excited to start right away at a school on the high end of your price range, you can always make your financial help conditional upon their academic performance.

"You can promise you'll help them pay back their loans after graduation if they get good enough grades," Murphy said.