HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Parents who've been saving for years for their children's college have been hit hard by these economic times.
What's worse, the PACT many parents bought through the state that was supposed to cover tuition and fees at an in-state school may not be worth the paper it's written on.
So what's a college-bound student to do? WAFF 48 News has some answers in this Money Monday report.
As a mother of two, Liz Hurley knows from personal experience it's almost a full-time job to help your child select, apply to, get in, and find money for a college education.
So WAFF 48 News went to an expert for a little inside information.
Lisa Burgoon is a college coach, but you won't find her on the field or on the ice.
She's an educational consultant who mentors students and their parents on the do's and don'ts of getting into college and paying for it.
Burgoon says it's very much a chess game, all about timing and strategy.
"Being organized, being vigilant and doing it early," said Burgoon.
She said first, if the need is now, every parent must fill out FAFSA, a federal financial aid application, whether you think you qualify or not.
"It's not based on how much your house costs, what your mortgage is. It's based on how much money you bring in and what your expenses are," Burgoon said.
If you have a high school senior who's starting college and money is tight or non-existent, know this, "tuition is never negotiable, but financial aid is always negotiable," said Burgoon.
She said schools admissions officers are willing to haggle.
"They would rather get a call from a student they are interested in, letting them know- look it is the money and is more aid available? than for the student to just decide not to go to school there," said Burgoon.
Once you arrive on campus, it may be too late for large scholarships, but you need to look at all the possibilities with grants, loans, and work-study programs.
"Most students come out of Georgia Tech with no loans because they've spent every semester working and making the money to pay for college," said Burgoon.
If you do have to take out a loan to pay for college, Burgoon says let the student bear some financial responsibility.
Parents should never take out a second mortgage or tap into their 401k's; it's irresponsible.
Another money saving measure is to look to community colleges.
You can get a leg up with a two-year degree, or satisfy your core requirements then move to university for specialty courses.
If you have a high school junior or younger, start planning immediately and know the best financial aid is institutional aid that's renewable through the school each year.
Learn this from Burgoon and her daughter Kate.
Kate just got into her dream school and has a full ride.
"I am exceptionally proud," said Kate who is exceptionally smart but also deals with the daily struggle of dyslexia.
So how did she rise above her disability to earn her high marks?
It's one of her mother's trade secrets, spend money on tutoring for standardized tests and you'll you can get a good return on your investment
"The score in reading alone, the score went from a 24 to 33. The scholarship she got is worth 53 thousand dollars over 4 years," said Burgoon. "I spent 700 dollars!"
You can find scholarships in your area through businesses, social clubs, even the military. Just ask around.
Outside the classroom, Burgoon says extracurricular activities are good, but part-time jobs are even better.
They show responsibility, leadership, and income something we all need in these difficult economic times.
Remember, Burgoon says use this summer wisely.
8th graders should start strategizing for high school.
9th and 10th graders need to start looking at colleges and making the grades for institutional scholarships.
Juniors should spend the summer filling out applications and writing essays.