It's a decision filled with daydreams and nightmares.
As students ponder what to say in response to the college acceptance letter they've received, their imagination might flit from parties and a glorious career to a noose of suffocating college loan debt.
"Too many students don't think about it until they are about to graduate from college," says Mark Oleson, director of the Office for Financial Success at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "But by that time they might have dug themselves into a hole they can't afford."
Oleson, who counsels students on finances, has seen plenty of those holes - students with $80,000 in debt and plans to go into professions like child development or teaching English, he said. "You can't pay $1,000 a month on a $25,000 salary," he said.
About two-thirds of students borrow money to pay for college, and the average graduate leaves a four-year program with about $19,000 in student loans and $3,000 in credit-card debt.
According to the College Board, borrowing to pay for college generally makes sense because education builds earning potential. The typical college graduate earns about 73 percent more than the typical high school graduate, and the higher pay covers the cost of four years of tuition and fees by the time the graduate is 33.
The higher cost of private colleges adds an extra burden. But by age 40, students typically have covered those costs, too.
But Oleson tells students not to base their decisions on the typical student. Debt levels might be too high if students aren't likely to complete college, or if they plan a career in a low-paying profession.
In a recent poll of 1,508 college graduates between ages 21 and 35, Mathew Greenwald & Associates found that 44 percent delayed buying a house because of the burden of student loans. And 28 percent postponed having children.
About 27 percent skipped medical or dental procedures, and 32 percent said college loans and credit-card debt for college forced them to move back into a parent's home or live there longer than they expected.
A national student loan survey by Nellie Mae in 2003 found that 54 percent of graduates said they wished they had borrowed less for college. If they had known in high school what they experienced after college graduation, they would not have taken on as much student debt as they did. That contrasted greatly with 1991, when Nellie Mae found only 31 percent of graduates regretted their debt levels.
With the cost of college climbing at a faster rate than inflation, College Board researcher Sandy Baum and Saul Schwartz, a Carleton College professor, recently explored the question, "How much debt is too much?"
While people who borrow often believe they will not be overextended if a lender seems confident they can handle a loan, Baum and Schwartz warn against that assumption.
"Lenders determine the maximum amount that they are willing to offer loan applicants on the basis of extensive analysis of loan histories," according to the researchers.
But the lenders focus on how likely a default will be - in other words, the odds that the borrower will be completely unable to repay a loan. They do not look at what paying will mean to the individual's lifestyle.
Before deciding on a college, and loans, Oleson suggests thinking about the student's likely career choice and pay.
Gail MarksJarvis is a Your Money columnist and author of "Saving for Retirement Without Living Like a Pauper or Winning the Lottery."