Students and families trying to pay for college are facing a complex financial puzzle that routinely requires a dizzying combination of grants, loans and money earmarked for retirement.
"It's crazy," said Trisha Brewton, a Tampa beautician who has been trying to find the money to send her daughter, Brialle, to Florida A&M University this fall.
It's no cakewalk for schools, either.
Over the past year, about 120 lenders have suspended all or part of their federal loan business, citing the loss of federal subsidies or an inability to resell loans. Others have cut discounts or ended their participation at certain schools.
At least one local school, Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, has lessened its reliance on private lenders.
And students who began their college years with traditional lenders have been forced to look elsewhere.
Brewton and her daughter have cobbled together all but $4,000 of a total annual bill she estimated at $17,500. They're using federal Pell Grants, scholarships, and Stafford Loans, and can tap into savings if they must.
"I didn't want her to have the responsibility to have to pay money back," she said. "Why pay for that the rest of your life, if you don't have to?"
The Brewtons are in good shape compared with some of the families Congress targeted for help last spring.
Under emergency legislation passed in May, parents who fall behind up to 180 days on mortgage or medical payments can still qualify to take out college loans under the federal PLUS program.
That's an improvement on the previous limit of 90 days. But it's cold comfort for families already head over heels in debt, said Billie Jo Hamilton, director of student financial aid at the University of South Florida.
"It's more severe (this year) to some extent," she said, recalling recent conversations with parents. "I have some car payments and now I'm going to lose my home, those are certainly things we hear."
The emergency legislation also boosted the amount of money available to low-income students through the Pell Grant program. It increased by $2,000 the loan limit in the popular Stafford loan program, and increased the total borrowing limit for dependent undergraduates from $23,000 to $31,000.
Families won't have trouble getting regular Stafford loans, which don't depend on credit histories, said Mark Kantrowitz, a national expert on financial aid who publishes Finaid.com.
"But (federal) Plus Loans depend on your not having an adverse credit history, which means no foreclosures in the last five years," he said. "I'm anticipating having a much higher rate of Plus Loan denials."
Such problems could force students to choose more expensive private loans, or delay college altogether.
Stetson University College of Law was largely dependent upon a single lender, with nearly two-thirds of its federal loans issued by Minnesota-based NorthStar Guarantee in 2006.
School officials said they recommended the lender to students because of its generous discounts. But last February, NorthStar suspended all of those benefits, and briefly suspended its entire federal loan program in April before announcing its resumption the following month.
Now, Stetson Law is joining the federal Direct Loan Program, in which students borrow directly from the government without using a bank as middleman.
"In the past, using private lenders for federal loans was often more advantageous due to borrower benefits," said Stetson spokeswoman Brandi Palmer. "But market instability has caused many of those benefits to evaporate, making direct lending a good option for our students."
About 1,100 schools now participate in the Direct Loan program, including the University of Florida, while 4,600 use third-party lenders.
Other Florida schools say they're not ready to make that leap yet. But if there's more turbulence in the federal loan program this year, or a major lender fails, they might.
"We've probably looked at it a little more closely," said Lisa Minnick, associate director of financial aid at the University of Central Florida. "You'd be crazy not to."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.