As U.S. college costs continue to rise, lower and middle income students face some difficult choices. Should they borrow more money to pay for higher education? Should they settle for a less prestigious but more affordable school? Should they postpone or even forgo their higher education goals? If U.S. colleges and universities are serious about making room for students of all economic backgrounds, it's time for them to do more to lower the financial hurdles.

According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2016–2017 school year was $33,480 at private colleges, $9,650 for state residents at public colleges, and $24,930 for out-of-state residents attending public institutions. To put this in perspective, multiply those annual figures by four -- for each bachelor's degree. Each student must also consider living expenses when developing an overall budget, whether they are planning to reside on or off campus.

Fortunately, most students will qualify for at least some financial aid – even students from upper income families. That means every student should be encouraged to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by admissions and financial aid advisors. Colleges and universities can also help incoming students identify and qualify for grants and scholarships. Counseling students on the best approaches to finding all available financial aid options can help level the playing field for lower income applicants, especially first-generation college students whose parents may have less understanding of the process.

Aid not only reduces student borrowing, it also eases the pressure to earn money by working during the school year, which can slow a student's academic progress. For students who must work, schools can support them by coordinating relevant employment opportunities off campus or providing on campus jobs related to their studies, such as faculty research and teaching assistant positions. Jobs located on campus can also reduce class scheduling conflicts and commuting challenges, leaving more time for studying.

For students who are already working full-time, their employers may have partnerships with colleges – particularly for online programs – that offer reduced tuition, flexible scheduling, and encouragement to pursue education goals. Employers might offer incentives to workers who pursue specific programs that would benefit the company. College advisors can work more closely with prospective students to help identify what assistance may be available.

Finally, colleges can help students better understand the potential return on an investment in higher education, by providing more granular and transparent information about actual costs. College decisions should be based on a comparison of multiple schools that offer the same degree program. Students should seek answers to questions such as: What is the cost per credit hour? What is the total tuition cost for the program? What additional fees are included? Itemizing the costs allows prospective students to develop realistic expectations about what it will take to pay for the programs they are interested in, and to compare costs across multiple schools.

Colleges and universities have heard the complaints about excessive costs and many have taken steps to not only improve affordability, but also prepare students for the financial responsibilities related to a college education. It's encouraging to see these steps toward cost containment and maintaining access for lower and middle income students. But we're still only at the beginning of this process, and it will be important for schools to continue to demonstrate accountability in the years ahead.

Melissa Venable

Online Education Advisor at HigherEducation.com

Dr. Melissa Venable has served as an Online Education Advisor and Writer at HigherEducation.com. She is also an Adjunct Instructor and Course Designer at Saint Leo University and the University of South Florida, and an Independent Contractor at Design Doc, LLC. Venable has held several Managerial roles in higher education throughout her career including Curriculum Manager, Instructional Designer and Manager and Academic Advisor.