In the face of rising tuition costs and a weak economy, college students are progressively shouldering the cost of attending college as they implement additional cost-saving strategies to make higher education a more affordable option. 

A new survey from Sallie Mae shows students are increasingly footing a larger part of their college tuition bill as parents scale back on financial contributions compared to four years ago.

Drawing from savings, income and loans, students paid 30% of the total cost of attendance last academic year, an increase from 24% four years earlier. During the same time period,  parents covered 37% of college costs, a drop from 45%.

“Many parents want their kids to play a part in paying for college whether or not they can afford to pay for college,” says Debby Hohler, director of corporate communications for Sallie Mae. “They believe when their child is helping foot the bill, they’ll take their education more seriously and take costs more into consideration.”

The tough job market is highlighting the importance of a degree, according to the survey. Sixty-one percent of respondents say they are willing to stretch themselves financially to pay for college –higher than each of the previous five years of the survey. Parents’ willingness to help financially held steady from last year at 53%.

For students undertaking a larger financial role in their education, here are three things that experts say they should take into account.

Understand the true cost of college

Tuition is a big expense, but that figure shouldn’t be the amount students budget to pay each year, says Suzanna de Baca, vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial.  

“Determine what college will really cost when you factor in textbooks and other supplies, a laptop computer and extracurricular fees,” she says. “At many schools, it costs money to play a sport, be in a Greek organization or use the technology in the science labs.”

One of the biggest costs students are taking on is room and board, with The College Board estimating that the average cost of room and board in 2011–2012 ranged from $8,887 a year at four-year public schools to $10,089 at private schools.

“This year nearly all families [surveyed] took cost-saving measures such as living at home, getting a roommate or working more,” says Hohler.  “Half of the students we surveyed are working more hours to pay for college.”

Exhaust all “free” financial options first

The Sallie Mae study shows that the amount of available grants and scholarships declined from last year, but were still higher than previous years.

Student borrowing funded a larger percentage of costs (18% vs. 15% in 2010), with federal student loans accounting for 13%, private student loans 4% and other types of borrowing 1%.

“When it comes to receiving money for college, explore all sources – including grants, scholarships, federal and private loans,” says de Baca. “Apply for as many scholarships as you’re eligible for.”

It’s imperative that students stay informed about legislation pertaining to federal loans and interest rates, says Kris Alban, vice president at iGrad.

“At today's typical student loan debt levels, a difference of one percentage point could end up costing over $1,000 before the loan is paid off,” he says.

Avoid over-borrowing

With student loan debt topping $1 billion earlier this year, students should avoid taking out more loans than necessary.

Students need to understand what is needed to cover essential costs and search around to find the best loan before signing any dotted lines, advises de Baca.

“Learn about interest rates and how they’ll impact the total amount you’ll owe back to the bank after graduation.”

To avoid over-borrowing from the get go, families should sit down with a college cost calculator to help students figure out how much they are taking out and how much they will need to make post-graduation after entering the repayment period, says Hohler.

“Every student and family should do their homework about the various loan options available to them and create a plan to pay for all four years of college.”