If you’re a parent or student with college in your future, brace yourself: Tuition at four-year universities has skyrocketed over the last 20 years. And yet, 49 percent of parents report saving nothing for their child’s college education, according to the latest national survey by the College Savings Foundation. And even diligent savers may not amass nearly enough to fund a college education.

Jessie Brumfiel

Jessie Brumfiel

Student loans might look like an easy fix, but debt can ruin your financial life for decades. Instead, avoid student loans by cutting the college price tag upfront. If you make smart choices and know where to find money for college, it’s possible to graduate debt-free.

The Cost of a College Degree

Even public universities can cost as much as a small house. The University of California now tops $13,000 in yearly undergraduate tuition and fees. Add another $18,500 for room and board, books, health insurance and travel, and you’re looking at a total of $31,000 per year. That’s not pocket change.

Private colleges will set you back twice that much. Santa Clara University now charges $40,500 in tuition and fees. Add room and board of $12,000 and another $3,000 in travel, health and personal expenses, and you’re shelling out $55,000 per year, or a staggering $220,000 for that diploma.

Before you give up on college altogether, keep in mind a degree is still worth the investment. Over the course of a lifetime, people with a college degree out-earn their no-college counterparts, on average, by about $1 million.

So how can you make it work? Students and parents who succeed in trimming the cost of college are tenacious, flexible and level-headed. Here’s how they do it.

Setting Parameters

It’s hard to tell your child you can’t afford their dream college. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the conversation more parents and students should have, and preferably before the senior year has begun. Sophomore or junior year in high school is a good time to begin discussing what your family can reasonably pay toward college.

If the dream college appears out of reach, you can start hunting for college money well before you need it. Many scholarships are open to juniors in high school, for example. At the same time, plan to apply to some schools with lower price tags, and schools where your talents are likely to be rewarded.

Researchers have found that students who attend a second-choice college are just as happy as students who enrolled at their top pick. Universities market themselves seductively, making the lure of a prestigious degree hard to resist, but no diploma is worth a lifetime of debt. Apply to a range of colleges, and you’ll spread your bets and uncover some bargains.

Financial Aid

You should apply for financial aid. Even if you suspect your income and assets are too high to qualify, many colleges are eager to attract middle-income families who can pay at least part of the bill. And, colleges often reserve their merit scholarships for students who also have submitted a financial aid application.

To calculate your estimated family contribution (the part of the college bill you’ll be expected to pay), you can use a free calculator at www.fafsa.ed.gov. And when it’s time to apply for financial aid, you’ll complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) at that website as well. Each college has its own financial aid deadlines and requirements. I recommend that parents take on the financial aid work of college applications.

Financial aid packages differ from college to college; it’s something of a black box. You simply won’t know which college is your most affordable option until all the aid packages come in. You may find your cheapest option is an out-of-state private university, especially when you bring that school desirable ethnic or geographic diversity, gender balance, or stand-out talent in athletics, music, art or theater.

University Merit Scholarships

You may be eligible for a university merit scholarship, based on a combination of your GPA and SAT scores. Colleges often label such awards Presidential or Dean’s Scholarships, and typically publish the requirements on their website. Even though merit awards aren’t tied to financial need, you may be required to apply for financial aid anyway.

Colleges use merit scholarships to lure gifted students who otherwise would choose a more prestigious institution. Here’s where a little flexibility can really pay off. Each year, all-star students get major tuition discounts of 30 to 80 percent, or even full scholarships, based on their academic achievement.

The Ivy League schools don’t award merit scholarships — they already attract the cream of the crop — but most other universities now do. Earn impressive grades, and major tuition discounts can be yours.

Private Scholarships

If you’re willing to do some work, you could earn a share of the $35 million that’s available each year in the form of private scholarships. These are educational grants offered by companies, associations, nonprofit foundations and other community organizations. To win, you must find the scholarships that match your talents, and then produce a winning application — typically, an essay, resume, transcript and interview are required.

The two best scholarship websites to begin your research are www.fastweb.com and www.ultimatescholarshipbook.com. You should search based on your personal criteria. Are you a female of Lithuanian descent who wants to study engineering? Or an aspiring poet who performs community service? Scholarships are out there just for you.

Sure it takes effort, but if you start early and stick with it, you can earn yourself thousands of dollars in private scholarships. And, many awards are renewable. That $500 scholarship can become $2,000 over four years. By comparison, it would take you 200 hours of babysitting at $10 an hour to earn $2,000.

If you’re a Santa Barbara County resident, visit www.sbfoundation.org to get scholarship deadlines and an application for the Santa Barbara Scholarship Foundation. Awards typically are modest, but competition is limited to students from Santa Barbara County. Finally, consider your employer, professional associations and local groups such as Elks, Rotary and Lions clubs.

Once you’ve enrolled at a college, you can comb through its scholarships, too. Ask your financial aid office about awards (often funded by generous alumni). Competition is limited to students attending your college, so the odds are decent.

Choose a Major that Pays

Not all majors are created equal when it comes to scholarships and starting salaries. Scholarships abound in engineering, math and science fields, where graduates are in short supply. These careers also fetch higher entry-level salaries, so you can quickly pay off student loans — although you should aim to avoid such loans altogether.

Other majors, such as nursing or education, prepare you for public-service jobs that may qualify you for a generous loan-forgiveness program. It’s worth considering whether one of these options is your ticket to paying less for college.

Financial Safety Schools and Other Options

Finally, plan to apply to at least one financial safety school. Cal State University campuses cost $11,000 per year. Community colleges cost no more than $3,000, and offer guaranteed transfer plans that allow you to step up to a four-year university. After two years, you’ll have saved a hefty sum and graduate with the same diploma as classmates who started at the pricier institution.

You may want to consider ROTC or the military academies. Either path can earn you a full college scholarship and guaranteed employment after college. Some colleges now offer plans to get you through in three years, saving you 25 percent in the process. Or, investigate one of a handful of tuition-free universities in the United States. Acceptance is competitive, and some are reserved only for financially needy students. Cooper Union, Berea College, Webb Institute, Deep Springs College and Alice Lloyd College all are tuition free.

The bottom line: Start saving today for college. If you’re already saving, consider saving more. And wherever you are in the process, know that you can take steps to shrink the college price tag. On graduation day, you may walk out with a diploma that cost you a fraction of the full price. Now that’s smart.

— Jessie Brumfiel is the director of college counseling at the Dunn School, a sixth- through 12th-grade college-prep boarding and day school in Los Olivos. For more information, click here or call the Dunn School at 805.688.6471.