05/10/2012 09:25 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

The Tuition Dilemma

After you've taken your SATs and ACTs, met with your college guidance officials and talked with your parents, you pretty much have a general idea of where you're going to apply to college. However, things have changed for our generation. In years past, a student would take out loans with the notion that they'd be able to get a job, which would enable them to pay back those loans in 10-15 years. That was until 2008. In 2008, we saw what would become infamously known as the economic meltdown. Our unemployment rates skyrocketed, stocks plummeted and an endless abyss of uncertainty was created. Unfortunately, this abyss is still ever-present. The dilemma facing today's high school grads is simple. Do you take out loans for college (and thrust yourself into debt) or do you save that money for graduate school or something else? It's a question many students and their families have been struggling with for the past couple of years, and if recent reports are an indication, things won't be improving anytime soon.

As recent reports have shown, Americans now owe more on student loans than on credit card debt. Furthermore, according to the College Board, students are borrowing more than double what they were a decade ago. And with more and more students applying to top-tier universities, where total tuition costs can exceed $60,000 a year, we can only expect student loan debt to increase. The question really becomes: At what point is it worth it to spend your money, even if doing so will create a burden on you and your family? Nothing is a guarantee anymore, so you need to carefully examine your options.

So what exactly are your options? One option is to go to a lower-priced school and save your money. Logically, your saved money will be used to go to graduate school, which in today's economy is required to establish a foothold in a variety of professions. Another option -- if the institution is a well-known, venerable, Ivy League-level institution -- is to go ahead and take out the loans. Having an Ivy League school or its equivalent on your resume is an invaluable tool in getting into graduate school or getting your first job. Most offer some form of financial aid to help get you through school. It may be expensive but you'll (hopefully) get a high-paying job, which will help you pay off the loans. Now, this option has become the road less travelled due to the current job market. A third option is to pursue college honor programs, where most of the tuition is either heavily subsidized or free. One example is New York's CUNY Macaulay Honors Program. These programs are very competitive and only take a small amount of students. Additionally, there are a variety of "Public Ivies" throughout the country. Public Ivies are schools that offer an Ivy League-level education for at least half the price. They are very competitive and hard to get into now that more and more students are applying. Moreover, you should always apply for financial aid at any institution, regardless of your family's income. You never know what can happen.

Ultimately, the decision will be yours. As teenagers, choosing the college we're going to go to is our first adult decision -- one of many which will shape our future. It's important that you think this decision through, as we live in a world where no profession, institution or even government is infallible. And yes, I know, getting older stinks. Get used to it.