There's nothing like a financial crisis to get families to focus on how much they're paying for big-ticket items such as college expenses. By Janet Bodnar, Editor-at-Large January 8, 2010 For years, Kiplinger's has been advising families that one way to keep higher-education costs under control is to have their kids attend community college for a year or two and then switch to a four-year school. This year, they finally listened to us -- with a vengeance.Community colleges are packed to the gills, and students are flocking to state institutions across the board. The average annual sticker price for a four-year public school remains a tad over $15,000 -- less than half the tab at a private institution. In our exclusive rankings of the 100 best values in public colleges, nearly 40% charge in-state students less than the average price, reports senior associate editor Jane Bennett Clark. There's nothing like a financial crisis to get families to focus on how much they're paying for big-ticket items such as college expenses. Surprisingly, they haven't always done that. In 2008, a survey of parents and students by Sallie Mae found that when deciding whether to borrow for college, a whopping 70% said a student's potential postgraduate income didn't factor into the discussion. That's a recipe for financial disaster. Government-subsidized loans can be a boon to students, but they can also encourage kids to take on more debt than they can handle. I recently made that point to a group of teachers at a conference on financial literacy, and they broke into applause. My sister, the teacher, wasn't surprised. "The assumption is that all kids should go to college, but not all kids are ready," she explained. Advertisement I'd add that parents aren't obliged to pay for four years of football weekends, frat parties and beer. I'm a great believer in a liberal-arts education, but I predict that the traditional scenario of moving away from home to soak up the campus experience for four years (or more) will become less common as schools search for ways to cut costs and deliver services. The University of Maryland is a case in point (and number 8 on our list). Thanks to the school's commitment to control costs, in-state students have enjoyed a tuition freeze for four consecutive years. The financial-aid office also encourages students to consider attending a community college, then transferring. Plus, the university has expanded its online learning programs and boosted its four-year graduation rate. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), former president of the University of Tennessee, wonders why it has to take even four years to earn a diploma. In a Newsweek article, Alexander cites the three-year degree programs of a number of colleges. The Lumina Foundation for Education is pushing for accelerated associate's degree programs focused on high-demand occupations. I know plenty of kids who sliced a year off their undergraduate careers (and 25% off their costs) by accumulating Advanced Placement credits in high school. Meanwhile, last summer my youngest child, a student in the engineering school at the University of Michigan, attended classes at the University of Maryland (practically in our backyard) and our local community college so that he could fulfill our family's own accelerated degree program: four years and out. Free retirement advice Take advantage of another of our exclusive services, which is aimed at the opposite end of the age spectrum: free retirement-planning advice from members of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. We're offering our ninth Jump-Start Your Retirement Plan Days on Friday, January 22, and Tuesday, January 26. So on one of those dates, dial 888-919-2345 or visit the Kiplinger.com Jump-Start Your Retirement special report for answers to your most pressing retirement-planning challenges.