“We’re getting very close to an extraordinarily high expenditure that we knew was in our future but now is suddenly in front of our nose. It creates stress for everyone,” said college financing expert Joel Peck.

The good news is that college savings are the highest in years.

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The average family has more than $18,000 set aside towards a savings target of about $55,000.

The most popular savings instruments are 529 plans, which hold 30 percent of college savings.

Peck recommends using the money from that plan in junior or senior year.

“A 529 plan grows tax free,” said Peck. “So what you want to do is have that available as long as possible to grow tax free as much as possible.”

The process for finding need-based and merit-based money starts with filling out FAFSA, or free application for federal student aid.

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Available online October 1, FAFSA crunches your income and asset numbers to come up with your EFC, or expected family contribution.

“If we’re starting with a family with an income of $80,000, they’re expected to come up with $20,000 towards their child’s education,” said Peck.

Peck works with clients on how to appeal to a college financial aid office for lower tuition.

He says reductions of $5,000-to-$10,000 are not uncommon.

“There’s money available, when a college wants a student, they find the money,” said Peck.

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It often takes a combination of savings, loans, scholarships and gifts from relatives to make that college dream a reality.