There is no magic formula to determine how much you or your child should borrow to pay for college. But there is such a thing as borrowing too much. How much is too much? Well, one guideline for students is to borrow no more than their expected first-year starting salary after college, which, in turn, depends on a student's particular major and job prospects.
But this guideline is simply that — a guideline. Just as many homeowners got burned by taking out larger mortgages than they could afford (even though lenders may have told them they were qualified for that amount), students can get burned by borrowing amounts that may have seemed reasonable at first glance but now, in reality, are not.
Keep in mind that student loans will need to be paid back over a term of 10 years or longer. A lot can happen during that time. What if a student's assumptions about future earnings don't pan out? Will student loans still be manageable when other expenses like rent, utilities, and/or car payments come into play? What if a borrower steps out of the workforce for an extended period to care for children and isn't earning an income? There are many variables, and every student's situation is different. Of course, a loan deferment is available in certain situations, but postponing payments only kicks the can down the road.
To build in room for the unexpected, a smarter strategy may be for undergraduate students to borrow no more than the federal student loan limit, which is currently $27,000 for four years of college. Over a 10-year term with a 4.45% interest rate (the current 2017/2018 rate on federal student loans), this equals a $279 monthly payment. Borrow more by adding in co-signed private loans, and the monthly payment will jump: $40,000 in loans (at the same interest rate) equals a monthly payment of $414, while $60,000 in loans will result in a $620 monthly payment. Before borrowing, students should know exactly what their monthly payment will be.
As for families, there is no one-size-fits-all rule on how much to borrow. Many factors come into play including, but not limited to, the number of children in the family, total household income and assets, and current and projected retirement savings.