Parents of high school seniors are busy gathering tax documents as early as possible this tax season. They need their finished tax return to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as FAFSA. As they send off their forms they’ll breathe a prayer for their student to receive a generous financial aid package.

But it’s the wrong prayer. Financial “aid” is code not only for scholarships and grants, but also for loans and work-study arrangements. Interest-bearing loans and employment shouldn’t count as “aid,” but they often make up the bulk of the package. Ask any 28-year-old with a six figure educational debt if they consider that “aid.”

Semantics aside, let’s remove the emotion of college selection from the equation for a moment. Loans should play a significant role in testing the economic value of a college education. A young adult burdened with massive educational debt may have a hard time doing better financially than his high school classmate who went straight to work, after debt service costs are considered.

Andrew Hallam suggests that matching students by intelligence and socio-economic backgrounds might reduce much of the advantage attributed to a university education. A smart student from a supportive family will do well with or without the pricy degree.

Assuming you are convinced that your child needs the college degree, or he wants to enter a profession that requires one, there are other steps to take to minimize the cost of education.

Consider State U. Whether you pay for school with loans or cash, a simple analysis suggests that the Harvard grad won’t be better off than students from a reputable state school (family money notwithstanding.)

Further, that expensive, elite school might not be the school that allows your child to shine.

Finally, unmanageable costs, new technology, and politics will change higher education in the next five to ten years. But even now, there are ways to take advantage of these shifts. An online community college class in the evenings, for instance, may save more than a minimum-wage job could ever pay--- provided you have made certain that the community college course credits are transferable.