College aid: Think like a shopper when seeking financial help

Can you afford college?

If you've lost your job or watched your college savings vanish, you may be among the countless people lying awake at night, wondering how to say "yes" to college for next fall.

Many families are stunned by annual costs of $20,000 or more cited in the acceptance letters students have received recently.

But what families have to pay is not set in stone. Parents and students can make college more affordable if they think of themselves as shoppers, rather than college applicants. They can ask for financial help from colleges that have offered little or none. And they can cobble together financial aid from colleges, tuition payment plans and student loans that won't need to be paid off for 10 years or more.

Virtually anyone can afford to go to college if they shop. In fact, the more desperate your situation, the more likely you are to receive help if you hunt for aid.

"Just don't let your child fall in love with a particular school," said Kalman Chany, a financial aid consultant and author of "Paying for College without Going Broke."

Here's what to do: