The quest for money that begins for students and parents every January has taken on new urgency in 2009 amid fears that loans and grants will be scarcer than in the past due to the recession.

Federal student loans remain readily available with some funding even increased recently by Congress. But the prospect that grants and scholarships may be cut at many schools, combined with the shrinking availability of private loans, has fueled widespread angst at a time when more people than ever are seeking help. Applications for federal aid for the current academic year already are running 10 percent above last year’s record pace, according to the Department of Education.

Savings held in Section 529 plans the state-sponsored investment funds for college that are popular for their tax breaks have been depleted by the worst bear market in decades and home equity values have plummeted. That has sapped two sources most tapped by parents to fund their children’s higher education. Colleges’ endowments have been similarly walloped.

Private student loans are especially hard hit. Last year, 60 private lenders provided $19 billion to students. Now, 39 of those have stopped lending to students and the remaining firms have made it harder to borrow, according to Finaid.org, a Web site that tracks the industry.

Numerous revenue-short states are likely to consider cutting aid in one way or another, and public colleges and universities are expected to raise tuition in some cases by double digit percentages as they set rates for next year

Scholarships from civic groups and local companies across the country also are likely to decline, Bugarin said, although it’s too early to know the extent.

What it all means is that families and college counselors are having to hold difficult conversations about reduced savings and the need to take on more debt and lower sights to focus on more affordable schools.

Indeed, the news isn’t all bad. The federal government has authorized some $95 billion in grants, loans and work-study assistance to help almost 11 million students and their families pay for college this year, and its recent commitments mean that total will all but certainly be exceeded next year.

The government broadened student borrowing in the midst of the credit crunch, ensuring the continued flow of federal loans that families depend on ahead of costlier private ones. Among other changes, annual borrowing limits for unsubsidized Stafford loans, which students can take out regardless of income, were raised by $2,000 and parents can now defer repayment of federal loans until after their child leaves school.

Stimulus proposals that would give students more financial aid also are progressing through Congress.

Aid can make a huge difference in affordability. The average list price of tuition and fees for the current academic year is $6,585 for in-state students at four-year public universities and $25,143 at private colleges, with some costing far more. But grants and tax breaks lower the average net price to about $2,900 at public universities and $14,900 at private schools, according to the College Board.

Some students will benefit from the turmoil, especially at colleges with high tuitions and scarce resources.

Admissions experts recommend considering a range of fallback options, from lower-cost public schools to community colleges or even waiting a year to save more money. And colleges and parents alike are hedging their bets on next year and beyond.

Grants and scholarships won’t all come through,” Emily Bliss said. `”It’s difficult for us to tell families that, because our heart is breaking for them knowing what they’re going through.”

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