If you're not saving for college because you expect your child will attend an affordable, public school, you might want to rethink your plans a little bit.

Kiplinger recently ranked 100 public colleges and universities that, in their judgment, provided both great value and a top education. Their data, incidentally, show that getting top education value doesn't mean students or their families avoid college debt.

In a fairly revealing column of data, the publisher lays out the average student's debt at graduation for each of the 100 schools. The numbers range broadly from $4,489 to $27,324. On average among these colleges, students can expect to leave with roughly $16,250 of debt.

That's probably a small amount when you compare the potential debt students can accumulate at pricey private schools. But, it's also no small number.

The size of this debt may be due to several factors. Tuition has been rising faster than inflation, and four years of tuition hikes while your budding engineer attends classes can eat away even the most carefully planned of college savings account.

Apart from tuition, the debt load may also reflect the cost of four years worth of housing, food, and other school essentials. Whatever the source, the data certainly show that steering your children toward public schools does not guarantee them a debt-free education.

Repeated studies show college can definitely pay off in higher earnings throughout life. Some students will not be able to avoid some debt to take advantage of this opportunity; but parents, even with the best of intentions, should not sacrifice their retirement savings to put their children through college. Get more information about prioritizing your financial goals and savings plans by reading "Save for College or Retirement?"

If you want your kids to leave college without debt, don't assume sending them to State University will automatically do the trick. You'll still want to project your costs and start saving. It's never too soon to start. (They grow up so fast!)

To put away that extra $16,250 in average debt that students at all these public colleges and universities carry, you need only put an extra $75 in a shoe box once a month from your child's birth until he or she turns 18. The Motley Fool, however, is no fan of the First National Bank of Under-the-Mattress.

With a long time horizon, you'll want to save your money somewhere that it can grow at a reasonable rate, and maybe even get you a tax perk or two. If that sounds good to you, you'll have multiple accounts to choose among.

You can get lots of details about your savings options at the College Savings Center. In brief, your options include:

  • Coverdell Education Savings Account: Allows parents to save up to $2,000 per student each year for education expenses, which includes elementary, secondary, and college education. Withdrawals are tax-free if used for qualified school expenses.
  • 529 Savings Plan: Allows parents to save upwards of $200,000, in many cases, for college expenses. Withdrawals are tax-free if used for qualified college or university expenses. Some states offer tax deductions for residents' contributions.
  • Brokerage account: Offers fewer limitations on participants and savings and may offer more flexible investment options, but lacks the tax advantages of a dedicated education savings account.

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Fool contributor Mary Dalrymple, a public university graduate, welcomes your feedback. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.