This may not be an issue for actual Ivy Leaguers. As college student Zac Bissonnette points out in his provocative book "Debt-Free U," graduates of Princeton, Harvard and Yale are among the students who graduated with the least amount of debt in U.S. News & World Report's 2006 study. That's probably because the schools have generous financial-aid packages to lure the students who might not otherwise be able to afford the costs, while many others who attend have rich parents.

But cost is an issue for the vast majority of families whose kids don't get into the Ivies but who may be lured by a "dream school" that charges a small fortune or that provides inadequate financial aid. Just look at the list of schools from the same U.S. News study whose graduates left with the most debt:

  • Seton Hall University
  • New York University
  • Worcester Polytechnic University
  • University of North Dakota
  • Pace University

As Bissonnette rather delicately puts it, "none of these institutions is likely to stand out on a résumé to the extent that Yale, Harvard or Princeton might." In other words, these students -- and others who attend expensive schools that aren't in the first tier -- may well be paying a premium for an education that doesn't justify it.

I'm not concerned just about the Leah Cowels of the world -- the students who overdose on debt. Cowels accumulated nearly a quarter of a million dollars in debt attending Ithaca College in New York to get a bachelor's degree she never used. And she's far from alone, as the testimonies on sites such as StudentLoanJustice.org can attest.

I'm also fearful for the parents who may drain their retirements and home equity, or pledge themselves to a life-shattering amount of debt, to buy their kids an education.

In too many families, discussions about what is and isn't affordable don't happen until the acceptance letters -- and the painfully inadequate financial-aid offers -- are in hand. And that's way too late.

By the time your kid is a freshman in high school, you should have a pretty good idea of your resources, including your savings. You can then go to the financial-aid calculator at FinAid.org to estimate how much your family will be expected to contribute to your child's education.

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Set limits now on how much you'll borrow through federal student loan programs. The most that students can borrow for an undergraduate degree is typically $31,000. Parents can borrow up to the total cost of an education through the PLUS federal loan program, but they shouldn't agree to any loan that would prevent them from saving adequately for retirement. Any loan bigger than that -- or any student loan that doesn't come directly from the government, with its federal student loan protections -- is a sign you're over your head.

Armed with those numbers, you can start searching for schools that fit your budget.

If your kid does get into an Ivy League school, congratulations. Chances are pretty good that its financial-aid programs will make the tab affordable, especially now that many of these schools have adopted "no loan" programs that award grants and other discounts.

Otherwise, be wary. In education, you don't always get what you pay for.

Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.