It's difficult to estimate the true cost of a college education because the final figure amounts to more than the cost of taking classes.
With tuition and mandatory fees, room and board, transportation, books and other expenses, many students find themselves facing hefty price tags.
University System of Maryland schools this year are increasing tuition by 3 percent for the second consecutive year.
According to Mike Lurie, media relations manager for USM, an agreement between Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Maryland General Assembly and USM froze tuition rates from 2005 through 2009. The Board of Regents has approved 3 percent tuition increases among USM schools in each of the past two years.
"It was becoming challenging because we were entering the height of the great recession," Lurie said. "We are dependent to an extent on funding from the state, and the state's ability to support us is directly related to the economic state in a given year, and that's related to tax revenue. In a recession, that tax revenue has gone down."
In "real money terms," Lurie said the increase translates to between $150 and $300 of additional payment from undergraduate students.
"That's not a huge amount of money, nothing that would threaten to price out any families," he said. "There's a real consensus that in what has been a very grim economic picture, we're really lucky."
Although USM students are not experiencing a substantial tuition increase, nationwide statistics are not promising. According to a College Board report, the average in-state public tuition and fees increase was 7.9 percent in 2010-11. With other expenses, such as room and board, total annual charges average at $16,140.
"Frankly, students are not prepared at all," said Britney Carter, student financial aid counselor at Hagerstown Community College.
Carter said about 75 percent of HCC students receive financial aid, and in recent years, financial-aid applications have significantly increased.
Angie Hovatter, director of financial aid at Frostburg State University, said she has noticed similar trends. She said Federal Pell Grants alone increased by about $1 million this past year.
Many colleges cannot meet the needs of their financially struggling applicants, said Carol Barnhart, a counselor at North Hagerstown High School.
"More often, students are feeling more pressure because colleges are offering less," Barnhart said. "More are taking out loans and having discussions with parents. There are a whole variety of opportunities they're looking into."
Barnhart said students are applying to a wider range of schools so they can compare more financial packages. She said although public schools offer reduced in-state tuition, students shouldn't avoid applying to private colleges.
"Parents often want their kids to go to state schools because they think it costs less, but state schools have formulas they have to follow. Private schools can take more liberties," she said. "Maryland is one of the more expensive schools."
Most schools offer more need-based than merit-based scholarships, Barnhart said. Many academically strong students are applying to those schools that might offer better scholarship options.
Barnhart, who noted that enrollment at HCC has increased in recent years, said more students are opting to start off at two-year universities.
"Students may think they don't want to at first, but then they think of the economic side. You can open up more opportunities your junior or senior year because you don't have the financial worry," she said. "I've also gotten way more requests for transcripts and letters of recommendation for local scholarships. Some students applied for everything."
Kyle Burkett, 19, is a bit of an expert at cutting back on tuition costs. His parents made him apply for one scholarship a week, and he said by the time he graduated from Grace Academy, he was able to attend HCC virtually free of cost.
Burkett initially planned on going to a four-year university after graduation. When his plans fell through, he chose HCC, where he plans to get his associate degree in business administration before transferring to Shippensburg (Pa.) University.
"I am really glad I decided to do that," he said. "I wanted a four-year school at first, but it would have been really expensive. If I hadn't stayed here, I'd be paying a lot more in the long run."
Burkett applied for dual enrollment at Shippensburg, an admissions program for transferring community college students that gives him reduced out-of-state tuition.
"A large portion of my decision was based on deciding what it would cost," he said.
HCC also attracts many nontraditional students who are returning to school to advance their education or pursue new career paths.
Kaplan University-Hagerstown has a large percentage of nontraditional students, many of whom live off campus, officials there said.
Kristin Brezler, director of financial aid at Kaplan University-Hagerstown, said many of the students are unprepared for the financial responsibility of paying for college upon enrollment.
Kaplan offers one-on-one financial counseling, where students learn about financial aid and loan options, Brezler said. The standard loan repayment plan is a 10-year process, so students need to think about their financial situation from a long-term perspective.
Hovatter said students work summer jobs to save up for textbooks and other expenses, and many have jobs during the school year.
Burkett, for example, is spending his summer working two jobs. He works days at the HCC welcome desk and nights loading trailers part time for FedEx.
"Paying for college is manageable as long as they're planning ahead as to how much it's going to cost, and as long as they're saving money," Hovatter said.