A higher education can cost a small fortune, even in-state at a publicly funded school.  If you're worried about helping your kids get through college or are trying to plan your own education affordably, you're not alone. Just know that there are smart ways to think about college funding and some not-so-smart ways.

These six signs indicate you're thinking about funding an education the wrong way. If any apply to you, step back and reconsider the path you're on before you sign up for decades of debt service that you don't really need.

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No. 1: You're saving for your kids' college, but your retirement is not on track

As a parent, you're used to sacrificing for your children. But the one thing you should absolutely not sacrifice for the sake of your children's college educations is your own retirement. The cold, hard truth is that there are several ways to pay for an education, but once you stop drawing a paycheck, your sources of funding to cover your own costs get really limited, really quickly.

Think of it this way: On one hand, if you don't save enough for your retirement, you risk becoming a financial burden on your kids as they're trying to take care of their own kids. On the other hand, if you reach retirement and find you have more than you need, you can always give money tax-free to your kids to help accelerate the payback of any school debts they may face.

No. 2: You're taking out loans without a clear income plan to repay them

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The college experience can be wonderful, but borrowing money just for the sake of having that experience is a terrible idea. Student loans cannot be discharged in most bankruptcies, and even your Social Security checks in retirement can be garnished to pay those bills.

An often-discussed rule of thumb with student loans is that your total student debt should not exceed what you reasonably expect to earn with your degree in your first year after graduation. Even that can be pushing it, particularly if you don't expect a high wage after you're done with school.

If you don't have a field in mind when you enter college, that's fine. But that also means you shouldn't take out a loan just to explore your possibilities.

No. 3: You're ignoring community colleges for core courses

Particularly when money is tight, one time-tested strategy for keeping costs down is to start out at a community college and then transfer to a four-year school after finishing. In many cases, credits can be transferred from the community college, allowing the student to complete core or introductory courses for a substantially lower price tag.

Four-year colleges are actually OK with this strategy, in large part because the dropout rate is so high. Overall, only around 55% of students who start toward a college degree will actually finish. As a result, many four-year schools welcome those who transfer in, to help assure the higher-level courses that make them a four-year school have enough students to justify offering the class.

No. 4: Having the student work is not part of the plan to cover costs

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One of the best paths to defray the costs of college is working your way through school. Many colleges offer work-study programs that let students work on-campus jobs scheduled around their courses, providing cash to help cover the costs of attending. Even without work-study, jobs on or near campus are often available, allowing students to work during the school year.

In addition, internships and co-ops are great ways for students who know the field they want to get into to get both money and experience while they're still learning the field. Not only can you get some or all of the costs of your classwork covered by those programs, but many companies look to their co-op and intern pools first when it comes to making full-time hiring decisions. In addition, an internship or co-op provides great experience for a new graduate even if it doesn't result in a full-time job.

Beyond that, Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) offers a tuition coverage program that can take a serious bite out of education costs. Many other employers also offer tuition assistance as a benefit, as a way to recruit a highly educated workforce. And the ROTC offers a great opportunity to trade time in the military for a college degree.

No. 5: You're turning down scholarships to go to a "better name" school

Once you have your degree, your grit, determination, and the track record you build over time matter much more to your ultimate success than where you went to college. Indeed, more Fortune 500 CEOs graduated from the University of Wisconsin than from any other school. Other strong public colleges that turn out Fortune 500 CEOs include the University of Michigan, Texas A&M, the University of California, Purdue, and the University of Illinois.

In many cases, going to a lower-cost college and emerging debt free is a much better idea than going to a costly "big name" school and getting saddled with a ton of debt. Without the burden of those student loans, you're freer to pursue your passions than if you're tied to a job you don't like simply for the paycheck.

No. 6: You're force-fitting college for a job when trade school would work

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Many jobs require specialized training but don't demand a college degree. They include electricians, nurses, plumbers, computer programmers, paramedics, mechanics, air traffic controllers, nuclear power operators, and more. In addition, it's possible to make a living in fields like construction and transportation without much more than a high school diploma and some decent on-the-job training.

If you have a passion that doesn't require a college degree, don't force-fit college for a career that doesn't require it. Not only would getting the degree delay you from receiving a paycheck and building that all-important experience, but it would also risk saddling you with debt that you don't really need.

Ultimately, it's about the trade-offs you make

Whether you're trying to figure out how to help your kids with their educations or you're designing your own path forward, the choice to continue schooling is a big one, with a large price tag attached. Fortunately, there are alternatives to taking out massive student loans and then struggling with payments the rest of your career. It may take a little longer or require a bit more up-front work, but if that's what is required to get a degree without the debt, chances are it'll be worth it in the long haul.

Chuck Saletta has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Starbucks. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.