In case you haven't noticed, many states in America are facing major financial crises (just ask California's Gray Davis), and in order to make ends meet as much as possible, many are cutting back on support for public colleges.

You've probably noticed how college costs in general have been rocketing upward much faster than inflation. But for many people, a silver lining was always there: State schools always tended to be much less expensive than private ones. The College Board, though, which reports on college costs annually, has just revealed that tuition and fees at state-supported four-year schools are now running, on average, some 47% higher (adjusted for inflation) than 10 years ago. The corresponding figure for private colleges is 42%.

What's the bottom line these days? The average annual cost for a year at a four-year private college (which includes tuition, fees, housing, and meals) is now $26,854, up 5.7% from last year. At four-year public schools, the average cost is $10,636, up 9.8% over last year.

If you're now bowing your head to weep, as your 16-year old cheerfully heads out to soccer practice, take heart. Here's some good news from the nice folks at The College Board: "In 2002-03, $105 billion was distributed in student financial aid -- a record amount, which was $13 billion more than was distributed the previous year. Total aid per full-time equivalent student averages about $9,100, with $3,600 of that amount in the form of grants."

So there's hope -- you won't necessarily have to foot your kids' entire bills. You may not have cash in all your stocks so Junior can take Freshman Composition 101.

There's a lot you can do to prepare for upcoming schooling expenses, no matter what your age or the age of your offspring. For more guidance, drop by our College Savings Center, or pick up a copy of Robert Brokamp's excellent book on how to cover the costs of education from kindergarten through Ph.D.