"It's more advantageous from a grandparent than a parent," said Robert Flashman of the UK Department of Family Sciences. "That's what I'm doing for my grandchildren."
Be prepared to bargain. David Ziebart, an accounting professor at UK, said parents should get multiple college offers.
"A lot of first-generation college parents don't realize that there's 'sticker price' and then there's the 'real price,'" Ziebart said. "A lot of parents will qualify for aid, and those with higher-performing kids will be able to negotiate. It's like sitting down with a car dealer. Here are the portfolios other schools can provide; what can you do?"
Don't assume that public universities will be cheaper than private colleges. Private schools might be more willing to deal, especially if you have some savings. Some private colleges have even floated the idea of accepting a tax-deductible donation instead of tuition, Ziebart said.
Make your child as attractive as possible to colleges. Again, it might seem obvious but that means getting good grades and test scores. Think beyond athletics: Almost every interest from band and orchestra to debate team probably has some kind of scholarship program.
"For a lot of universities, their most valuable asset is the student applicant pool -- who they are able to attract," Ziebart said.
So your child can be a top recruit even if he or she doesn't play basketball. Parents should use that leverage to put together the best education for the money.
Of course, there is money for good grades: The Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship, or KEES, funded by the Kentucky Lottery, will pay Kentucky students up to $2,000 a year in college based on high school grades, Flashman said. Awards are available for grade-point averages 2.5 to 4.0, and bonus awards are added for ACT scores as low as 15, Advanced Placement scores 3 to 5 and International Baccalaureate scores 5 to 7.
Make your child work for it. Work-study programs during the school year or summer, which make students directly responsible for earning money to pay for some of their college costs, can be financially and academically advantageous.
"If your kids have some skin in the game, they're going to take it more seriously," Ziebart said.
Student loans, which must be repaid no matter how long it takes, should be a last resort, Flashman said, in part because they can impact the next generation.
Lobby lawmakers. One big reason public university tuition costs have risen so steeply in recent years: reduced funding from the state government to schools. If you think that education should be a bigger priority, then tell your elected representatives.
Gov. Steve Beshear has appointed a task force to look at tax reform. Some states give parents a tax credit for saving for college; Kentucky does not. If you want one, talk to Frankfort.
If you want Washington to take education into account when they address the upcoming "fiscal cliff," call Congress.