Are you, like so many parents, wondering how to pay for college? Whether your kids are in elementary school and you’re looking at the projected costs of a higher education in ten or fifteen years, or the kids are in high school and university is just around the corner, your concerns about college financing are a reality.

Many public institutions are raising tuition this year, and just about everyone who has been saving for college has seen huge losses in the last twelve months. The bottom line? Families need to be looking at costs and benefits.

David Hawkins, Director of Public Policy and Research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, says affordability is the number one concern these days. “The first thing we’ve noticed from our research confirms what we suspected all along,” Hawkins says, “which is that parents and families are taking a closer look at costs. Parents seem to be talking to their children about affordability as the primary factor in terms of choosing a college.”

This is a shift in focus in recent years. Once upon a time, parents dreamed of sending their children out of state or to private institutions that were particularly well suited to their children’s strengths and interests. Today, though, few families can afford to spend $30,000 a year on out-of-state tuition, and even fewer have the ability to spend upwards of $50,000 a year for private school.

But, says Edie Irons, Communication Director for Project on Student Debt, an education is what you make of it. “College education is as important as ever and will only get more important in being able to make it in our economy, but it doesn’t necessarily matter if you don’t go to a big name school or a private school,” Irons says. “Families are beginning to think in these terms, and a lot of families are choosing colleges closer to home—public colleges instead of private colleges.”

Though going away to college might seem to be a thing of the past, Irons says there are still a lot of ways for families to get help and a lot of families who can work this out. “The money is out there to help students,” Iron says. “Parents can take out federal parent loans, there are tons of scholarships available—there are just as many, if not more, options for financing in this economy.”

Hawkins suggests that families fully exhaust the federal loans that are available. These often carry consumer-friendly terms (as compared to some private loans), including the Income Based Repayment plan, which began July 1, that allows students to repay their loans based on income. “If someone really wanted to enroll in an institution that had a higher sticker price, this provision now says students can repay their loan as a percentage of their income,” Hawkins says. “It spreads the burden out over time.”

Still, in this environment, many consumers are oriented toward less debt. What kinds of options do families have who want to keep their debt to a minimum?

Amy Weinstein, Executive Director of the National Scholarship Providers Association (NSPA), encourages families to take the time to look into scholarships. “There’s money out there in scholarships,” Weinstein says. “Our members in 2008 gave out over a billion dollars in scholarships.”

Weinstein says students should look into their local community foundations and talk to the financial aid office where they’re enrolled. “You’d be surprised by the number of people who give money to their local foundation to make sure more kids from that community go to college,” Weinstein says. “Same thing with alumni. A lot of people give money to their alma maters so the school can finance more students’ education.”

Here are some other ideas for financing college:

  1. Community College Attending community college for two years and then transferring to a four-year institution will cut costs significantly and better prepare some students for the rigors of the university environment. Check out the community college in your local area to find out about tuition.
  2. Loan Forgiveness As of 2007, many public service professions qualify for federal student loan forgiveness after ten years of full-time work and the required monthly loan payments. Professions include law enforcement, nonprofit professional, public librarians, and many more. Learn more about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program at the Department of Education website.
  3. Establishing Residency Many students have their heart set on a particular public institution in another state. Taking a year off, moving to the state, and establishing residency can cut the costs in half in some cases and is a good option for those who know which public institution they’d like to attend.
  4. Taking Time Off Taking a year or two off can do more than just help a prospective student establish residency. Many teenagers don’t have the desire to go directly to school. For these teens, taking a year or two to work and save money and see what the world of bill-paying is really like can be very beneficial. And besides, there’s always touring the country in a beat-up car or backpacking across Europe—experiences that can almost only be had before or during the college years. There’s a lot to be said for these experiences.
  5. Top-Tier School Financial Aid Packages Those students with exceptional grades or other nonacademic skills and talents should not shy away from applying to the top-tier schools of choice. According to Edie Irons, many of these schools have very generous financial aid packages that greatly reduce or eliminate student loans altogether. Top-tier institutions, especially some of the more costly private schools, are making an effort to attract and keep strong students. For more information about these schools, visit the Project on Student Debt.