High school students by the hundreds came downtown this week for a two-day college fair to find the school of their dreams.
In tow, or sometimes alone, were parents, like Caroline Bates, who came to find answers: How to pay?
"I'm just trying to get a sense of how you afford it and what our options are," said Bates, an Amherst mother with a junior in high school. "I want to get a sense of the prices and see what type of financial aid is available."
Paying for higher education is one of the critical issues facing American families, particularly as college costs continue to rise during hard economic times.
When including room and board, the average total annual cost at four-year public institutions rose 6 percent this year to $15,213, according to the latest report by the College Board, which tracks college costs.
Prices rose 4.3 percent to an average of $35,636 a year at four-year private schools.
"While a college education is critical to long-term financial security, it feels out of reach to many students and families in today's economy," College Board President Gaston Caperton said last year when releasing the new figures.
With escalating prices and rising student debt, policy gurus have called on higher education to do a better job of reducing costs to contain rapidly rising tuition.
Meanwhile, the scramble for financial aid is "definitely a little more intense," said John Smith, a member of the New York State Financial Aid Administrators Association, a volunteer organization.
Often feeling the pinch are those in the middle -- families earning $40,000 to $120,000, he said.
"That may sound like a lot of money but, in the end, it's really not, especially if they have three or four children," Smith said Wednesday, as he manned the financial aid booth at the college fair. "In most families, two parents are working because that's what it takes."
Smith usually offers students a few financial suggestions, such as considering a community college, where the average annual cost is $2,544, according to the College
"It's going to cost you less and at least you can get some of your general education credits out of the way," Smith said.
He also warns students about getting sucked in by a college brand name.
"There are a lot of good values out there," said Smith, who is also a senior financial aid adviser at the University at Buffalo. "You can get a good education in this country at just about any school you choose. The important thing is to get an education."
At the same time, parents and students shouldn't rule out a school because of its sticker price.
The College Board points out that only about one-third of full-time undergraduates actually pay the sticker price. The rest receive some kind of institutional, federal or state aid.
"You can't just look at the cost and say, 'I can't afford that,' " Smith said. "Let the financial aid officer tell you what they can do first."
High schools, in fact, are noticing that some of the local private colleges have bumped up institutional aid to help students in this tough economy.
"I think the private colleges are stepping up," said Maryanna Fezer, a guidance counselor at Tonawanda High School.
Fezer and Harry Gong, director of admissions at Niagara University, were co-organizers of Buffalo's National College Fair held Tuesday and Wednesday in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.
The college fair attracted mostly juniors from 77 high schools around Western New York and representatives from more than 200 colleges and universities from as far away as Alaska and Ireland.
"There's a lot of variety," said John Latona, a junior at Frewsburg High School.
Latona, 17, is interested in becoming an illustrator and is considering art school. His mother, Charlene, is considering rising costs.
"Graduates aren't getting jobs like they used to, either," she added.
Bates was doing some college shopping for her daughter.
"She's interested," Bates said, "but she's just all over the place, and I just need to give her a little focus."
Megan Schleicher scouted colleges with her mother, Jennifer.
"Just trying to get a good idea," said Schleicher, 16, of Williamsville South High School.
"I think right now we're still trying to find what schools she likes," her mother added, "and we'll try to find a way -- within reason."