Listen to the thoughts of prospective college students:
* "I applied to the schools that I'm interested in, but when people say, 'Where are you going to college?' I say, 'Where can I get the most money?' " says Caryn Sokolow, a Pikesville High senior.
* "Both my parents work, so the state told me that I don't qualify for financial aid. The state scholarship people said, 'If your father dies, you could qualify.' God forbid my father should die so I can go to college," says Caryn Sagal, a senior at Pikesville.
* "I wanted to apply at Goucher or Loyola but I never did. After I looked at their tuition costs and talked to my parents, I realized that we could not afford $10,000 per year," says Wendy Walsh, a senior at Sparrows Point High School.
Such is the talk in the hallways of the area's high schools today.
As they fret over the minor problems of prom dresses and graduation robes, many seniors and even juniors are worried about something far more serious: How to pay for a college education.
Their parents worry even more.
"We're ill-prepared financially to send her," said Ann Berger, a city school system librarian whose daughter, Rebecca, wants to attend exclusive Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "We never got ourselves focused in on saving properly -- we could never properly get our heads above water. We all worry about it and I'm sure she feels somewhat at sea about it. There's an awful lot of stress involved."
"I'm waiting to see what they are going to offer us," said Virginia Burt, single parent of a Roland Park Country School senior. "I'm an administrative assistant and I don't make that much money. For me, it's causing stress, and I'm also concerned that when she gets out of school that she'll have loan bills. I don't want her to start life that way."
When college classes start this fall, tuition, fees and room and board will average 7 percent higher than last fall, said Jeffrey Welsh, spokesman for the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
Over the last 10 years, the cost of a college education in Maryland has risen more than twice as fast as the general cost of living, according to figures from the colleges and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The average cost of tuition at a four-year state college will be $2,322 next fall, an increase of 107 percent since 1981-82. Community college costs have increased even faster, up 122 percent to $1,140.
During that same period, the overall cost of living in the Baltimore area has increased by less than 45 percent, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As a result, students say, they are taking a second look at their educational dreams and, in some cases, changing their career goals.
Along with feeling anxiety over the mid-April deadline for receiving college acceptance letters, many wonder if they or their families can afford the schools that will accept them or if they will emerge from four years of college burdened with debt.
For students whose parents are affected by the recession, the prospect of high tuition bills can stir feelings of guilt.
Some say they are investigating four-year state colleges as alternatives to expensive private institutions, while others are considering two years of community college as a cost-cutting measure.
"If we struggle hard enough, we can afford it," said Tom Outten, an 18-year old senior and standout football player from Patterson High School who recently lost out in competition for a $1,500 scholarship that would have eased the burden of Towson State University's $2,300 tuition.
"My dad has a saying that we'll get by somehow. I work at the Fair Lanes bowling alley setting up parties and I will work as much as I can, but my school work comes first."
"I'm highly motivated and am determined that I'm going to make something of myself," said Trina Mitchell, a Dunbar High senior who wants to study pharmacy at Morgan State University. "I'm relying on financial aid, but am willing to work and give it the time. My family is willing to work with me, too, but it's really up to me."
"I have noticed some changes in my house," said Elizabeth Voneiff, a senior at Roland Park Country School, where tuition is $8,100 a year. "My dad says to think about the less expensive schools. Both of my parents are self-employed and a couple of months ago this didn't matter. Now, because of the recession, it's changed."
For some students at the area's private college-prep schools, the honors program at the University of Maryland's flagship College Park campus looks like a bargain at $6,977 a year for tuition, room and board, compared with $20,000 or more at prestigious private institutions.
Comparing today's costs with their own college expenses in the 1950s and 1960s, many parents say the sticker shock has rocked them in to rethinking strategy for their children's post-high school investment.
All sorts of steps are being taken, students and parents say, ranging from raiding savings accounts to overall frugality and an increased reliance on financial aid.