These are the weeks when tens of thousands of young people begin the annual trek to college campuses, cars bulging with clothes and furniture, minds with hopes and fears.
Among the fears gnawing at an increasing number of students and their parents is whether they really will be able to pay the tab. Freshmen and their families wonder if the cost numbers they've worked out are right. Upperclassmen may see their savings running perilously low.
Prices have been going steadily upward. Virginia's state colleges, for example, are boosting tuition and mandatory fees to in-state students by an average of 8 percent this fall, following rises of 9 percent in 2004-05 and 15 percent in each of the previous two years.
"I think this year more than in years past, students and families are looking at an increased gap between what they have and what it's going to cost to pay for college," said Mark Brenner of College Loan Corp., an education lending firm.
Inevitably, some families will suddenly realize that their numbers don't work, and they won't have enough money. Some will be asked at registration to write a check that's bigger than their bank balance.
So what can students and their parents do at the last minute? College finance experts say where there's a will, there's usually a way. Here are some possibilities:
* H-e-l-l-p-p-! -- The first place experts recommend that students and their families turn is the financial aid office at their college. Most schools, once they have accepted a student and gotten him or her as far as the door, really do want things to work out.
If you are already getting aid and it really isn't enough, explain to the officials why. Maybe they've overlooked or underestimated some expense the family is facing. If your circumstances have changed -- a job loss, unexpected medical bill or other factor that reduces income or boosts expenses -- tell them so they can apply their aid formula to your new reality.
There are small ways they can help as well. Most colleges will let you spread out tuition payments over the semester or year. Often there's a fee, but writing a smaller check now may be doable, and can give you time to work out some other source of funds or assistance.
* Scholarships -- The general rule is, "go for the free money first," said Martha Holler of Sallie Mae, the big Reston-based education finance company. Schools, charities and donors fund scholarships for all sorts of reasons, and it's worth looking around for one that might fit you. In addition to rewarding good grades, scores and citizenship, there are awards based on geography, special academic interests and a host of other things.
For example, the Sallie Mae Fund, the big lender's charitable arm and sponsor of a new guidebook on paying for college, has spotted scholarships for left-handed students, skateboarders, duck callers and students whose last name is Zolp. (No kidding, but don't run to change your name -- it has to be Zolp on your birth certificate.) The Sallie Mae Fund itself, in partnership with the Washington Nationals baseball team, is creating a program to award $2,000 scholarships to a number of needy students from the Washington area who have at least a 2.5 grade-point average. It's taking applications now for scholarships to be awarded next spring.
There are numerous databases of scholarships you can search, and you don't need to pay for this service. Sallie Mae has one, as does College Loan Corp., and both are free of charge.
"You should never pay for a scholarship search," said CLC's Brenner. The commercial ones don't have any better access to this information than the free ones, he said.
And if it's too late to get money for this fall, don't give up. You may be able to get something for next semester or next year.
* Borrowing -- Finally, as every parent knows, the government, schools and financial institutions make it easy to borrow for college.
Generally, the first place to look is at government loan programs. This is another area where the college aid office can be helpful. Officials there can quickly tell you what the rules are and what you might qualify for.
The most popular loan programs are government-guaranteed Stafford loans, written by private lenders such as Sallie Mae and CLC, and the competing Direct Loan program run by the federal government itself. There are rules and limits -- colleges participate in one or the other -- but students can easily qualify for either. Interest rates are subsidized for needy students, and unsubsidized loans are available regardless of need.
Low-income students should also investigate Perkins loans, provided by the government through colleges, which often add their own funds. The interest rate is 5 percent, and interest does not accrue while the student is in college.
An often overlooked federal program is the one for PLUS loans for parents. Surveys show that a majority of parents do not know about PLUS loans, even though they are perhaps the easiest money for a family to get.
PLUS loans allow parents to borrow up to the full cost of the child's education, including ancillary costs such as transportation, and parents need only have a dependent undergraduate student and pass a limited credit check. The interest rate is variable -- currently 6.1 percent -- and capped at 9 percent, and some of it may be tax-deductible, depending on the parents' income.
Beyond government programs, the financial service industry has been happily developing lending deals to help families who still find themselves short. Some offer what amount to unsecured personal loans, though at generally better rates than such loans fetch in the open market.
Many families turn to home equity loans or lines of credit. Such loans are tax-deductible within limits -- but watch out for the alternative minimum tax -- and interest rates generally are low since default rates on home mortgages are typically low. Home equity lines of credit can work well for the family that can't quite cover everything at once, but can over time. The line can be tapped when a bill comes due, and paid down, at least in part, before the next one comes. By keeping the balance down and paying it off a few years after graduation, a family can keep total interest costs to a minimum.
College finance has become extremely complicated in recent years, and with the large amounts of money involved, families should educate themselves as much as they can. Bookstore shelves now abound with college financing guides, and many are quite good. Sallie Mae Fund's new entry, "How to Pay for College," available in bookstores and online vendors, aims to be both clear and candid, offering commentary from actual college aid officials about how things really work.
Colleges and lenders also have Web sites that can be quite helpful. A good place to start is the Department of Education at www.ed.gov, especially for information about the government Direct Loan program, something private lenders don't say much about.
Note to tardy taxpayers: If back in April you took advantage of the automatic extension of the filing deadline for your 2004 income tax return, the extra time runs out tomorrow. It's possible to get a further two-month extension, but you have to show the Internal Revenue Service that you really need it. To get a second extension, file Form 2688, "Application for Additional Extension of Time to File," by tomorrow. If it's granted you'll have until Oct. 17 (Oct. 15 is a Saturday) to file.