With college costs rising, and the amount of student debt ($1 trillion and climbing) off the charts, it is not only the fiscal cliff we hear about on the news that concerns us. The college fiscal cliff looms large on the horizon, and, for some, the abyss below beckons as parents and students hover, not unlike Wile E. Coyote, suspended over that void which threatens to suck every last dollar out of both wallet and bank account.

While we have little (okay, we have some) control over college costs, there is much we can -- and should -- do to both contain expenses and find the money to pay for such piggy bank breakers as tuition, room and board and that semester abroad in Australia.

Here are a few of the tried and true, no nonsense means of avoiding the college fiscal cliff (or, at least, softening the landing should you fall therefrom):

1. Save. Save. Save. Ben Franklin may have said, "A penny saved is a penny earned," but doubtful he ever saw a tuition bill the likes of which your son or daughter will be faced with. Saving for college, once a luxury, has become a necessity. Opening a 529 plan, even with as little as $25, starting young (say, when the kid is fresh out of the womb and gets a Social Security Number), and continuing to fund that account (even in small increments) through the college (and graduate school) years, will go a long way in helping to ease the pain of college debt. Consider, too, the tax benefits of 529 plans, such as New York's College Savings Plan.

2. Public vs. Private. While some private colleges are true bargains -- just as some publics can be very expensive, particularly for out-of-state students -- consider the bang for the buck you may get choosing public over private colleges. And don't neglect your own state's university system, especially those like underated SUNY, where academics and extracurriculars often rival the privates.

3. Search and Apply for Scholarships. It's true. There are billions of dollars in free money available to students applying to and already attending college. And, contrary to popular belief, students DO get scholarships and grants, in considerable sums, sometimes enough to cover the cost of a full ride, and at least in amounts sufficient to pay for a semester's worth of books. Of course, you have to know where to look for scholarships, whether by way of online search engines (FastwebZinch, College Prowler, to name a few), the high school guidance office (yes, that's part of what these folks get paid for), the colleges you are applying to (and certainly, the one you will attend), and in your own backyard (no, not the proverbial money tree, but rather, local civic and community organizations, neighborhood banks and businesses, fraternal and social organizations, and maybe even the company you work for). The key is to know where to look for those scholarship opportunities, and, once found, to apply, apply, apply (did we mention, apply?) for as many scholarships as you may qualify for! 

4. Start Early. Stay Late. While high school seniors make up the bulk of those frantically searching for scholarship money, there are scholarship opportunities for high school juniors, and even for freshman and sophomores. And college students take note: Those tuition bills keep on coming after the freshman year, so you have to keep on mining those scholarships and grants even after you pass through those ivy-covered gates.

5. Submit Financial Aid Applications. Too often, students (and parents) neglect to do anything more in terns of financial aid than submitting the FAFSA form (if they even do that). Well, you're not likely to see a dime from the colleges -- let alone from Uncle Sam -- if you don't take care of the paperwork (or, more likely, the online equivalents). Complete and submit FAFSA, for each school, and for every year you will be in college. Complete and submit the CSS Profile, for colleges that require this College Board administered financial statement. Complete and submit any and all college-specific financial aid forms. [Check college websites and/or contact the respective colleges' financial aid offices.]

6. Get A Job. Work Study is often an option to help pay those tuition bills. Typically, you need to submit FAFSA to be considered. Work during the summer, when you can, and consider a part-time job during college. Every little bit helps!

7. Federal Loans and Grants. Low interest (3.4% for undergraduates) Stafford Loans. Perkins Loans. Federal and institutional grants. Again, complete and submit the FAFSA, enabling the colleges to calculate your financial aid award. which, in most instances, will be comprised of a combination of scholarships, work-study and student loans.

8. Use The  College Net Price Calculator to Determine Costs. Virtually every college website has a Net Price Calculator, through which students and parents can calculate college costs. Do the math. Then compare costs at all colleges you are interested in.

9. Calculate Federal Aid. You can get a rough estimate of how much federal aid you are likely to qualify for by using the FAFSA4caster. It is free, and can be accessed well before the time comes to complete FAFSA (on or after January 1).

10. Pay Attention To deadlines. Just as there are deadlines in applying to college, similarly, there are deadlines in applying for financial aid. Federal deadlines. State deadlines. College deadlines. The old adage rings true today: "You Snooze, You Lose!''

11. Review And Compare Financial Aid Awards. Does the school meet your entire need? Are you being offered scholarships that never have to be repaid, or loans that have to be paid back with interest? Who is offering the best financial aid package. And don't be afraid to go back to the colleges, before you accept either the offer of admission or the offer of financial aid, and ask for more. [The worst they can do is say, no!]

12. Don't Go It Alone! Paying for college, like applying to college, is not only stressful, it can be confusing and frustrating as well. Just filling out the requisite forms, knowing when, where and how to apply for scholarships and loans, and how to go about the task of maximizing potential awards, can be daunting. Help is available, whether through your high school guidance counselor, the colleges' financial aid office or from your independent college counselor. Ask and, yes, you shall receive!

Yes, the fiscal cliff that threatens the financial security of a nation is just around the bend. The college fiscal cliff, take note, is not that far behind. As the folks in Washington must act, taking prudent steps and enacting sensible measures to avoid going over that cliff and into the economic void, so, too, must students and parents act, with all deliberate speed, cool heads, and a feasible financial game plan, to head off that insidious college debt.

Plan. Prepare. Prevail!

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of The College Whisperer.

Who knows what peril lurks in the college application and admissions process? The College Whisperer knows. . .

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