I attended a college planning session this morning that was packed with great information. You know how sometimes the best information is stuff you probably already know? Here is what I think is probably the best piece of advice for families looking at colleges:

Focus on the outcome of your student’s education if you want to make good decisions about college. Don’t think about where they’re going to be when they’re 19; think about where they will be when they’re 25. Based on what you know about them now, are they going to be working in a high-paying career, going back to graduate school, or working in a lower-paying field? If it’s the first, you probably have more leeway in college choice because your student will be able to pay off larger loan balances. If it’s either of the latter two, then your focus needs to be on managing costs during the undergraduate years because student loan repayment will be a bigger barrier to their future plans. (Insert disclaimer here that college isn’t just about getting a job. Of course it isn’t, but having your child’s hands tied in the future because they can’t repay college loans is a potentially bigger deal than any of the decisions they will make about college.)

So, before you start looking at which schools to apply to, have a good, hard talk about what you can afford and what they can afford. Then look for schools that are likely to have four-year costs in that range. Based on the resources you have– income and savings– how much borrowing needs to happen for them to attend? What would their likely monthly student loan payment be? How much of their income does that represent?