The economic slog is causing Americans to rethink how they handle the high price of college.
When the recession hit in 2007, those with kids in college had few options, said Clifford Young, the lead researcher on an annual survey by Ipsos for college lender Sallie Mae titled "How America Pays for College."
"Our study a few years ago showed tuition going up and a bad economy," he said. "Families were shackled if they had older kids in school. They had to increase their out-of-pocket costs."
But no more. As new students enter college, parents and students are making markedly different choices about where they go and who pays for what, according to the survey.
Never miss a local story.
Virtually all families in the survey of 1,600 college students, released last week, reported taking cost-saving measures such as selecting lower-cost colleges, living at home and commuting to class or going part-time.
The financial tinkering is paying off: on average, families reported paying 9 percent less for college than they did the previous year.
"What they are paying reflects changes in behavior and their choices," said Sarah Ducich, senior vice president for public policy for Sallie Mae.
First, more families are tapping financial aid.
For the first time since the study began, more families filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, jumping from 72 percent last year to 80 percent this year.
Most of the increase in FAFSA participation came from middle- and high-income families, according to the survey.
Almost 15 million students filled out the FAFSA in the first half of this year, according to the U.S. Education Department, compared with 9 million during the same period in 2006.
Because of applying for financial aid, families reported an increase in grants and scholarships. This year, that free money made up 33 percent of the amount used to pay for college, compared with 23 percent last year. Also, the proportion of families using grants increased significantly from last year: 30 percent to 46 percent.
Again, the Education Department supports those figures, showing a 34 percent increase in Pell grants awarded from 2006 to 2010, with 7.7 million students receiving them last year.
A new survey by Fidelity Investments also shows a significant shift in financial behavior toward college costs.
Nearly half of those surveyed said their student lived at home and commuted to school, up from 38 percent in 2007. Also, more families are encouraging their students to attend a public college or university and graduate more quickly, reversing a trend in which more students were taking five and even six years to earn an undergraduate degree.
In addition, almost 60 percent said their student worked part-time, and almost half asked the child to help foot the bill for college -- both up 10 percentage points from 2007.
Most parents want to avoid saddling their kids with a load of student debt at graduation. Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and founder of FinAid.com, studied the 4.2 million undergraduates who graduated in 2008 based on data from the Education Department and found some interesting trends.
Forty-one percent came out without any student debt, he said. Not surprisingly, those who enrolled in low-cost, in-state public colleges were much more likely to complete school debt-free than those who did not. Eighty-five percent of students who graduated with no debt went to public colleges. Only 12.5 percent of nonprofit or private school graduates left without any debt.
If you do need to borrow, one of your best low-cost sources is a government loan, Kantrowitz writes.
The interest rate on a subsidized Stafford loan is 3.4 percent, although that will rise to 6.8 percent next year for new loans if Congress doesn't intervene.
"Parents would be better off financially if they had their children borrow from the lower-cost Stafford loan program than taking out their own loans," he writes.
"The unsubsidized Stafford loan rate right now is 6.8 percent with a 1 percent fee, less expensive than the Parent PLUS loan's 7.9 percent interest rate and 4 percent fee. Nothing prevents parents from helping their children with their monthly loan payments."
Another tip for parents is to make sure to take one of the three tuition deductions when you file your taxes, said Sallie Mae's Ducich.
"The American Opportunity tax credit is for $2,500 in tuition and fees and it's refundable, meaning it can be refunded to you even if you don't owe any taxes," she said.
It's worth looking at all three reports before your student starts filling out college applications this fall. They can be found at www.salliemae.com/howamericapays, www.fidelity.com and www.finaid.org.
Teresa McUsic's column appears Fridays.