With student loan debt reaching crisis levels, families and colleges alike are searching for ways to rein in this rising expense.

College preparatory resource College Board found the average annual tuition fees range from $9,139 for a public four-year (in-state) college up to $31,2131 for a private four-year college. For students who migrate out of their home state, they can expect to pay an average of $22,958 for a public four-year college.

Anita Narayan, managing editor of education at college ranking publisher U.S. News & World Report, says students should take a strategic approach, both financially and educationally, to college choices as soon as possible.

“There are so many great undergraduate programs to choose from,” Narayan says. “Applicants should focus on the criteria that interests them, like location and available majors, but also set limits based on their financial and academic situations by applying to a couple of financial safety schools. Before deciding to go into debt, it’s extremely important to research each school’s stats, like its retention and graduation rates – knowing these ahead of time can give you a sense of how successful you might be at the college you choose.”

Planning ahead is key. “One of the most important things students and families can do is have a plan for how they’ll pay for college,” says Ellen Roberts, director of corporate communications from private student lander, Sallie Mae. “According to the national research report by Sallie Mae and Ipsos, ‘How America Pays for College 2015,’ only two in five families, or 40%, have paying-for-college plans.”

She says having a plan seems to be key as students borrow 40% less than those without a plan--$2,681 vs. $4,531, on average.

Additional insights from “How America Pays for College 2015” include:

•Nearly nine in ten (88%) families said they would be willing to stretch themselves financially to afford college.

•80% of families would rather borrow to pay for college than not be able to attend. Attending college remains a priority, but borrowing to pay for it may not be a requirement.

•Six in ten families (62%) did not borrow any money to pay for college during academic year 2014-15.

•73% of students from families who borrowed for college worked at least part-time while they were in school.

What Financial Keys Are We Missing?

Roberts says families have several misconceptions about paying for school. One misconception is the student is not eligible for scholarships, because grades aren’t high enough or the family is not financially needy.

“In fact, millions of scholarships, worth billions of dollars, are awarded each year to students with a wide range of aptitudes, achievements, and aspirations.” Roberts suggests using the online Scholarship Search by Sallie Mae, which is a free, online resource that helps students find scholarships for which they might be eligible.

The other misconception is the student doesn’t need to file a free application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). “Submitting a FAFSA is the most important thing college-bound students can do to get federal or state money to help pay for their education,” Roberts continues. “The FAFSA is the free ticket to all forms of federal financial aid, including grants, loans and work-study programs, as well as certain state-based aid. Every student should submit a FAFSA regardless of financial circumstances, because not all types of aid are based on financial need – and a new FAFSA should be submitted each year the student is in college.”

Narayan points out Princeton and Boston College, for example, are on U.S. News and World Report’s “Best Value Schools” for their high academic quality and substantial aid packages. So don’t just look at sticker prices.

Jaslee Carayol, associate director from College Board, reminds students that grant aid is the most desirable form of financial aid. It is awarded before the tuition bill has to be paid and does not have to be repaid. The federal government and colleges and universities are the largest sources of grant aid, but states and employers and other private entities also provide significant amounts of grant aid.

Emerging Pathways to a Cost Effective Higher Education

Stanford University recently announced tuition would be free for families who earn less than $125,000 a year and have assets of less than $300,000. The university went further by waiving room and board expenses for students whose families make less than $65,000 a year.

Narayan says a number of prestigious schools offer a variety of attractive financial aid packages that may not be obvious to applicants.

“Each year, U.S. News ranks the ‘Best Value Schools,’ which are colleges and universities that offer high academic quality and great financial aid packages. Our reporters also highlight which colleges and universities claim to meet 100% of demonstrated financial need. That means these schools use a combination of loans, scholarships, grants and work-study to fill the gap between the cost of attendance and what a family can contribute. Top-ranked schools like Harvard or Amherst may seem cost-prohibitive, but they offer good financial support.” The survey offers a drilled down list that includes national universities, liberal arts colleges, regional universities and regional colleges.

Beyond the traditional path, online college arms from some of the top schools are gaining considerable notice.

“Online programs give prospective students the chance to meet their academic and career goals while catering to their work and family schedules,” Narayan says. “However, since online education is a relatively new area, one of the biggest concerns prospective students have is whether their online degree will be valued by future employers.”

Evangeline J. Tsibris Cummings, assistant provost and director of UF Online at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla., says what sets UF Online apart is the program’s structure and intent. “Students can pursue their degree solely online or they can go online for two years and transfer to our campus,” she says. “UF Online is all about creating a flexible learning experience for the student, while at the same time delivering the same level of high quality education from the University of Florida.”

Cummings says UF Online is not a separate university, and UF professors deliver online courses. “Students have the advantage of receiving the same degree as an on-campus student from UF but they end up paying 65% less in fees and tuition,” she says. Florida residents pay $3,876 in annual tuition for UF Online versus $6,310 for in-state students who attend UF on campus.

“Many of the fees residential students pay are not included for the online students, which reduces the expenses,” Cummings says. “However, we have found many of our online students are moving to Gainesville and becoming active on campus so they have the option to add those fees to their tuition, as they become more active and use more on-campus resources--it’s all about flexibility and accommodating the evolving landscape of higher education.”