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5 Ways to Solve College Sticker Shock

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- The increasing severity of the student debt crisis has those saving for their children's or grandchildren's college education spooked.

And who can blame them? Total student debt in the U.S. weighs in at a whopping $1 trillion, and the cost of college tuition has grown at an unsustainable pace--up 1,100% over the last 35 years . That's, in part, why the portion of 25-year-olds with student debt jumped to 43% last year compared to 25% in 2003. To make matters worse, more than 40% of recent college grads are unemployed--with nary any prospects to pay down that debt.

Understandably, the families saving for college down the road look at these figures and feel anxiety.

In fact, 71% of people helping to pay for college are worried about the financial burden, according to a new nationwide survey conducted for MainStreet by GfK North America . Those trying to get ahead of the game and accrue a college fund are saving an average of $6,790 annually, according to the survey. The run-of-the-mill savings plans are popular with 53% using a straight savings account, 24% opting for a 529 or prepaid tuition plan, 13% using life insurance and 11% going with a Roth IRA. In fact, the more money you make, the more likely you are to use an advantaged 529 plan, with 24% of those with incomes over $75,000 opting for the 529 compared with only 19% of those with incomes under $75,000.

But those trying to save big for prestigious private schools may be less than enthused with their return on investment: the lifetime earnings advantage of college graduates over those with a mere high school degree is pegged at $279,893--just a tad more than the cost of a top four-year institution.

The mounting tuition costs and ROI considerations are enough to worry Joseph Orsolini, a CFP in Glen Ellyn, Ill. who is saving for his two sons--in first grade and fourth grade--to go to college.

Since his kids were born, he's used a Coverdell Education Savings Account (a tax-advantaged plan similar to a 529) and saves $100 monthly while kicking in extra for birthdays and Christmas to max out the $2,000 annual limit. He's also considering adding an in-state 529 to take advantage of the Illinois 529 tax credit.

"I am highly aware of and anxious about the future cost of college," he told MainStreet. "The choice is either write lots of small checks over a long time or a few big checks when they go to college. Smaller checks are easier."

Orsolini also has a few tricks up his sleeve: he realizes that room and board together costs about $9,000 annually, and so he may think about having his kids choose a school nearby so they can live at home for a few years to net significant savings.