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It’s no secret that the recession has driven down savings rates among Americans – shrinking budgets have left less room for socking away money, and record-low deposit rates have provided an additional disincentive to save. Now, a new study identifies one particular area of concern: college savings.

According to the latest Certified Financial Planner Board/Consumer Federation of America Household Financial Planning survey, less than half of households with college-bound children now say that they have begun saving any amount of money to finance higher education, with the percentage falling from 56% in 1997 to just 48% in 2012.

While that’s about in line with similar dips in retirement planning and emergency savings, it’s still a worrisome figure in light of how tuition has soared in recent years. In 2000, the average tuition at a four-year college was a little shy of $16,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the Department of Education; by 2009 that figure had skyrocketed to just under $21,000, an increase of more than 32% in nine years. Americans are saving less and less for something that’s costing more and more.

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Check Your Credit For FreeAnd that bodes poorly for a national student debt load that already weighs heavily on the country’s recent graduates. Total student loan debt has nearly doubled since the beginning of 2005, reaching nearly $1 trillion as of the first quarter of 2012, and the average college graduate under the age of 30 is dealing with just under $21,000 of student loan debt. If mom and dad are pitching in less to finance their child’s education, those numbers can be expected to continue to go in the wrong direction.

Americans’ growing reluctance to put away cash for college and other long-term financial goals is certainly understandable in light of the 40% reduction in family net worth reported earlier this year by the Federal Reserve. And continuing skittishness over unstable markets also put a damper on building a college nest egg through investing – according to the report, 55% say they’re worried about losing money if they invest, up from 45% in 1997.

Still, if parents don’t want their kids saddled with debt when they graduate college, they’re going to have to find room in the budget for a college fund and get over their fear of the markets.

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