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We want to pay for as much of our children's college education as we can, but right now the money's not there. Would it be a bad idea to dip into our retirement fund?

A 2004 Collegiate Funding Services survey found that 43 percent of parents in the middle-income range ($25,000-$75,000) do not understand all the college funding choices available to them. As a result, 16 percent of parents who expect their children to go to college plan to use retirement savings to pay the bills, and another 7 percent plan to put college expenses on a credit card.

But, both of those choices have serious drawbacks; the first risks your financial security when you will need it most old age and the second could put you deeply in debt for years to come.

Instead, maybe it's time to explore college-funding alternatives, including those that put some of the responsibility on your children.

Visit the college's financial aid office. Some students may be eligible for need-based financial aid. Others may qualify for federally funded education loans. There are programs for parent loans, as well - both government and privately funded. Investigate work-study arrangements. Some schools offer students the opportunity to work on campus in exchange for reduced room and board or tuition Take out a home equity loan. The equity in your house may cover tuition costs and provide a tax deduction for the interest you pay.

Parents with more time may want to investigate CollegeAdvantage, Ohio's 529 college savings program managed by Putnam Investments, The Vanguard Group and Fifth Third Bank. Administered through the Ohio Tuition Trust Authority, the program offers both tax-free savings for those saving to send a child, grandchild or other beneficiary to college.

CollegeAdvantage offers a wide variety of investment options, including a Fifth Third 529 Savings Account and Fifth Third 529 Certificates of Deposit, to appeal to the diverse needs of families saving for college. Which is right for you will depend on you individual needs.

Remember: always seek professional advice from an experienced professional to make the most of your opportunities.

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