Westminster mom Julie McLean has a good job with Arapahoe Credit Union and education savings for her daughter who starts college this fall. But when her daughter chose Red Rocks Community College over a four-year school because of its EMT program, McLean was pleased. “It’s the norm now,” McLean says of two-year programs, noting that many of her daughter’s peers are starting at community colleges to save money. “If you don’t have a scholarship, it seems like you’re staying home for two or three years.”

With recent cuts to university budgets and tuition hikes up to nine percent at some schools, many families are sweating the cost of college in Colorado. According to a survey by College Invest, the Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE) nonprofit arm, fewer parents than last year are saying their kids will attend college. More parents are delaying retirement to pay for college, and enrollment at two-year community colleges is up 25 percent this summer. “We do our very best to make everything affordable,” says University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, noting that next to its peers in other states, CU’s in-state tuition is considerably less. “But our budgets are pretty threadbare.”

Although funds have increased for work-study and Pell Grants, these programs are specifically geared toward lower-income students—an important step, but one that does little for families like McLean’s. “The really vexing problem is the middle class—the family that doesn’t qualify for the Pell Grant, but doesn’t have a lot of savings or want to go head over heels in debt,” says CDHE executive director David Skaggs.

Even before the economy went south, Colorado’s higher education spending came in at a paltry 48th in the country: While we dole out around $2,000 per student each year, the national average is $7,000. With our allotted stimulus dollars, state schools can remain stable for three years. But that stimulus money is one-time relief—a Band-Aid. When that money runs out, will the state have recovered enough to fill in the gaps where tuition can’t? Or will our universities be forced to adopt a tuition model closer to that of more pricey private colleges? “That’s the big worry of schools,” says John Karakoulakis, CDHE’s director of legislative affairs. “They say they’re approaching a cliff; what’s going to happen in 2011-2012?”