Paying for college might be compromising your retirement.

Paying for college might be compromising your retirement.

If you have a child in or about to start college, there's probably a gap between how much college actually costs and the financial aid you received. For the average family, one year of tuition for one child cost 24 percent of the family's annual income in 2012, and the amount not covered by financial aid ranged from $3,500 to $8,500 per year, according to research firm Postsecondary Education Opportunity. And costs continue to climb.

To bridge the gap, the conventional advice is to take out a Plus loan (a student loan for parents) or to cash out home equity to pay the bill.

If you're considering either of those options, go find a mirror and imagine more wrinkles and whiter hair on the person staring back at you. Then ask, "Can I afford to take on these loans? Have I maxed out my retirement savings? Will the loan be paid off by the time I'm old/retired/disabled?"

Why? Once kids start college, parents have reached the age when they need to start setting themselves up for a secure dotage. To older generations, that meant having a paid-for house, no debt and money in the bank by the time they got the gold watch. The high cost of college is, in part, eroding that dream.

A T. Rowe Price survey found 52 percent of parents prioritized paying for college over saving for retirement. American parents also pay about 45 percent of their children's annual college tuition, using a combination of savings, assets and debt, including Plus loans and home equity, according to Sallie Mae.

And it's getting harder to keep up. Average tuition at public four-year colleges rose 13 percent between 2010 and 2015, on top of a 24 percent increase between 2005 and 2010, according to the College Board.

How to pay for it "is an issue coming up more and more for households, and the answer isn't easy," said Brad Huffman, a Certified Financial Planner with Future Finances in Worthington. Even his well-to-do clients are scratching their heads. "Student and parent debt are getting out of hand."

Back to the conventional wisdom. First, the Plus loan. Financial aid awards, especially at private colleges, often include parent loans because they make the school seem more affordable. The out-of-pocket cost seems smaller after the loan is applied, said Paula Bishop, an independent financial aid consultant based in Seattle.

Parents who take out Plus loans end up owing $30,867 on average, according to Sallie Mae. Plus loans have tough terms. They can't be discharged in bankruptcy, and the government can seize tax refunds and Social Security checks to pay past due balances.

As for home equity, Bishop said many colleges view it as "cash in the bank" when calculating aid deals. Families are expected to tap into it. My neighbors, for example, have five children in college. The financial aid office told them they should tap the equity in their home to pay tuition, and only after it was gone would they maybe qualify for aid.

Taking on loans can put parents on precarious financial footing at the same time they need to eliminate debt and boost savings ahead of retirement. "I'm not a fan of taking on debt, but many households see no other choice," Huffman said.

If this is your plan, know "the risk and cost," he advised. For instance, "If you don't pay back a home equity loan, you lose your house. That is a big risk if you are uncertain you can keep up with the debt."

Tread carefully: More and more seniors ages 65 to 74-a whopping 65 percent in 2010-were in debt, including mortgages and student loans, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That debt is likely to lead to hardship. In 2013, there were 706,000 senior citizen households that owed student loan debt, according to the Government Accountability Office.

-Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance for The Columbus Dispatch, bankrate.com and middlepathfinance.com.