When Beth Pintal graduated with a master's degree in library science from the University of Pittsburgh, where she'd also earned her bachelor's degree, the 43-year-old thought that she would have a great job to look forward to. She never expected that a tough job market would make her $40,000 in student loan debt an unmanageable burden.

But it did. Now married with a 4-year-old daughter at home, she has watched as interest and penalties have caused her debt load to balloon to $100,000 -- and while her student loan obligations have soared, the amount of time she is able to spend with her daughter has dwindled.

"I don't see my daughter very much," she says, noting that she works eight hours most days and can't take Saturdays off. "I'd love to invest the time with my daughter. I only see her about three hours per day. If I didn't have these student loans, I would be able to work less and spend more time at home."

She's also worried about the impact the debt has on her home life. "Kids pick up when you're under stress, and it's not something you can explain to a 4-year-old. She just wants to know why mama's so upset and why don't I get to see mama very much."

This is not an idle point, nor is at a cherry-picked anecdote I pulled out because I think student loans are evil -- although I do think that. No, this is a pretty common scenario.

A 2002 survey conducted by Nellie Mae -- a subsidiary of Sallie Mae, hardly an anti-student loan propagandist -- found that 21% of student borrowers had delayed having children because of their loans, up from 12% in 1987. It also found that 14% delayed getting married because of their student debt obligations.

So here's my plea to families who are considering students loans as a means of financing education: Don't paint yourself into a corner by taking on long-term debt obligations that could force you to make life choices you don't want to a few years down the road. Recognize that many dreams -- from getting married to having kids to starting a business to working for a nonprofit -- can be put out of reach by excessive debt loads. College should be about preparing a flexible foundation that will allow you to build the life you dream of. It's hard to build dreams on a foundation of debt.

If you can't afford to pay for your child's chosen school without student loans, look at cheaper alternatives. The evidence that your child will benefit in any long-term way from going to one school instead of another is weak. The evidence that he'll benefit from graduating debt-free is really, really strong.

Your grandchildren just might thank you when mom or dad's debt-free education means they can spend more time with their parents.

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