Ask any child about their “dream career” and you’ll instantly know their passion. My six-year-old daughter, for example, believes she’s destined to work as a “pet doctor” because she’s enamored with all animals from squirrels to kangaroos.

And my four-year-old? She’s going to be a princess, she says, for no other reason than she watches them on TV.

That’s all fine and dandy for now, but as they age, we will gather to have “the talk” – the conversation where I tell them that life isn’t all granola bars and pony rides, and that their career choice will inevitably come with consequences. I want them to follow their dreams, yes, but I hope to guide them towards a “dream life” and not just a dream career. And it’s quite possible that dream life won’t look anything like they think it will.

The Crazy State of Higher Education

Although I mostly write about personal finance, my other niche topics are travel and higher education. As a writer who covers everything from the growing costs of college to the intricacies of specific degree programs, I am constantly shocked by the details I uncover.

  • Fact: Indebted graduates from the class of 2015 left college with more than $35,000 in student loan debt.
  • Fact: Tuition at for-profit schools can cost more than tuition at Harvard – even to earn an Associate’s degree!
  • Fact: National student loan debt levels recently surged to $1.3 trillion dollars, a figure that increases $2,726 every second.

A lot of the stuff I read and write about is downright cray – from students who borrow $100,000 for bachelor’s degrees to for-profit colleges that close their doors and leave their students out in the cold. Even crazier is the fact that much of it could be completely avoided if kids – and their parents – took the time to consider what borrowing money for college really means.

Sadly, we’re often too busy telling our kids to “follow their dreams” to take a cold, hard look at the aftermath of following such advice. And the results are nothing short of devastating for millions of borrowers who owe so much money they worry they can never pay it back.

College Advice Parents Should Give their Kids

My kids are only 6 and 4 now, but they’re going to hear an ear full when they get older. While I truly hope they find meaning in their lives, I will implore them to consider how they want their lives to look five, ten, and even twenty years from now. I do plan to pay for my children’s college education in full, but that doesn’t mean I want them to squander the opportunity – nor does it mean that I’m offering a blank check.

Here’s some college advice I plan to dole out when the time comes, plus some advice I wish people would share with their children who are already in debt:

Spend two years in community college.

While earning a four-year degree might be the best move for your career, earning the bulk of your initial credits at a community college is a great way to save money. Tuition at our local community college is only around $4,000 per year, whereas tuition at the local four-year schools starts at $9,000. If the numbers stack up similarly in your area, spending those first two years at community college could save thousands of dollars over the duration of your school career. And since your final degree will come from the four-year school you graduate from, it’s likely no one will even know you went to community college for a while.

See also: Should Parents Have a Say in Their Child’s Choice of College Major?

Pursue a degree that can lead to a lucrative career.

After my husband graduated from college with a degree in theater arts, he found his “degree” wouldn’t actually land him a career as an actor; that was something he needed to do on his own. Looking back, he now says it was an awful idea – and a poor use of his college funds. In fact, during his first week in class, he says even his professor told him he was wasting his money. If only he would have listened!

Pursuing your “dream degree” may sound smart, but that doesn’t mean it will actually help you get a job. Most of the time, the artists with the most talent will succeed with or without a college degree. And if you pursue a degree in a profession that will likely lead to employment, you can continue pursuing your dreams and artistic talents on the side.

Speaking of that…..

Pursue your “passion” in your spare time.

“But what about my dreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeams?” is the question everyone is asking. Here’s the cool thing: When you pursue a degree that leads to a lucrative career, you’ll have the money to pursue your hobby or passion in your spare time.

In a perfect world, I would earn a degree in “taking beach vacations.” Maybe I could even get the school to call it something fancy like “B.A. in Creative Relaxation.” Wouldn’t that be grand?

Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world, and no one is going to pay me to get day-drunk and look for hermit crabs. Fortunately, I earn enough money I can pursue this passion of mine in my spare time. See how that works?

Whether you love creating art out of shoes, indie music, or making YouTube videos, earning a degree in an in-demand and high-paying field will make it easier to pursue your passion in your spare time.

See also: What I Want My Kids to Know about Money

Decide if college even makes sense.

While a college degree pays off for the majority of students, there are some people who simply don’t need a college degree to succeed. Maybe you have an epic business idea and would rather put your energy into getting it off the ground. Or perhaps you are crazy-talented in some skill or trade where a college degree wouldn’t benefit you much at all.

Regardless, the growing costs of higher education make it important for everyone to stop and think about whether college is the right move. Giving good college advice means considering that college – particularly four-year schools – might not be the best option. There are oodles of excellent jobs that only require a two-year degree or professional certificate. Many, many people go on to become a huge success without that plaque on the wall – and without the crushing student loan debt that often comes with it.

You have the power to pay off your student loans, so do it.

Greg went on a huge rant about student loan forgiveness a few years ago, and I believe the central message of his diatribe still rings true. Basically, he feels like most people who borrowed money for college should buckle down and repay their loans as quickly as possible instead of signing up for loan forgiveness programs that garish your wages for the next 20-25 years.

I mostly agree. Average student loan debt is around $35,000, which is basically the price of a brand new car. If you forgo the new car for the next decade and drive a piece of crap instead, you could take the money you would normally pay and absolutely kill your student loans.

Of course, that only works if you stop complaining long enough to do the math.

Consider refinancing your loans if it makes financial sense.

Over the last five years, a number of innovative companies have stepped forward to offer a solution that works for some student loan borrowers – student loan refinancing. Just like you can refinance the loan on your home, you may be able to move your current student loans into a product with a lower interest rate and better terms.

If you refinance federal loans with a private lender, you will lose certain protections including deferment and forbearance, along with access to income-driven and public service forgiveness programs. Still, this strategy can make a whole lot of sense for anyone who doesn’t plan to take advantage of those benefits anyway.

Even better, competition in the student loan refinancing space means more companies are competing for your business now than ever before. From SoFi to CommonBond, the options are limitless. Also read this Earnest Review for details on their up-and-coming loan products.

The Bottom Line

With college costs and debt at record levels, your kids need more from you than "follow your dreams." Here's the best college advice you can give them.In a perfect world, everyone would follow their passion before landing their dream job in a well-respected and growing field. We would all have giant houses with picket fences, 2.5 healthy children, and two cars in the garage. And, of course, college would be free for anyone who could apply themselves long enough to finish.

Sadly, we don’t live in that world, and the decisions we make have lifelong consequences. You’re stuck with whatever future you design…and the loans that accompany it. I plan to help my kids choose carefully and wisely with respect to where they hope to end up ten years down the road. I wish more people would do the same.

See also: Should I Refinance My Student Loans?

What advice do you wish you received before reaching college age? Is there anything you wish you could change?