High school students from Kansas City, Mo. are gathered around a table outside the student center at St. Paul's Macalester College.
The talk here isn't about finances, it's about what they're looking for in a school. They say feeling comfortable in a small liberal arts college is what's important to them.
But financial considerations are important too, according to Kathy Levy, who's here with her daughter Emily Crenner.
"It's definitely a consideration," Levy said. "Actually, Emily is looking at a couple of schools that gave her handsome scholarship opportunities. That's not the case here, but we've told her she should pick the school where she feels she can grow the most and feel the most comfortable."
Her daughter also said the finances will play a role in her choice of college.
"I think it's going to be a factor in my final decision," Emily Crenner said. "But like my mom said, they really want to support me in whatever my decision is going to be. But it's definitely an incentive for other schools because of the scholarships."
This is final negotiation time for parents and their college-bound students. You can bet dining room tables across the country are weighed down with piles of college literature and equal amounts of heavy conversation.
This year, financial reality may take priority over the lofty aspirations of a student who has their mind set on a particular college.
The tough economy also means colleges are reaching out to students and their families, especially with information on financial aid, according to Matt Beirne. Beirne is the admissions director at the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University in central Minnesota.
"They're all in that same situation where they really want to work with families and try to accommodate them as they're looking to make a tough college decision in fairly uncertain economic times," Beirne said.
Getting students to campus is the key to winning them over, Beirne said. This year, St. John's and St. Ben's is spending $50,000 to fly in prospective students for campus visits. That's double what they normally spend.
Another tactic to reach out to undecided students is being taken on by alumni of St. John's.
"It's to Kent from Thief River Falls Minnesota," said Matt Reubendale, a 2006 graduate of SJU, who just penned a letter to a student who's been accepted to his alma mater.
"I've just told him congratulations on his acceptance to St. John's University. Told him I was sure he had many options but I hoped that he would join us on campus next fall," Reubendale said.
The letter-writing campaign is an effort to connect with prospective students, and convince them that attending St. John's will pay off in the future, even if it's a financial stretch now.
For parent Paul Landskroener of Minneapolis, the bad economy collided with his son's college search at the worst possible time.
"In October, I was notified that my position as a lawyer at Allina Hospitals and Clinics was going to be eliminated as of December 1, and that was my last day of work," Landskroener said.
Landskroener's job loss came after his son Karl had already eyed some expensive colleges with price tags of $50,000 a year in Washington D.C., North Carolina and Indiana.
When Landskroener shared the news of his joblessness with the colleges, two of the schools offered $10,000 more financial aid. No final decisions have been made, but Landskroener thinks his family will need to kick in about $15,000 of their own money so their son can attend college.
"Even though we don't know what our income is going to be going forward, we're confident enough between our savings and what we might be able to cobble together that we can at least make a commitment for the first year," Landskroener said.
Landskroener, who made $114,000 a year as a lawyer, now makes $16.00 per hour in a temporary job with the U.S Census. He hopes his family's economic situation, along with the country's, turns around before it's time for his daughter to head to college, in less than four years.