"Parents are willing to stretch themselves," said Sarah Ducich, Sallie Mae's senior vice president for public policy. "It's not that they're not willing to pay. It's that their income is not keeping up."
College spending per student was about $21,000 during 2012, down from a peak of $24,000 in 2010, according to the Sallie Mae-Ipsos Public Affairs report.
The annual survey of student financial aid found students earned about $6,300 in grants and scholarships to pay for college costs, taking the top spots from parents.
Parents chipped in $5,727 on average, a decrease of 35 percent since 2010.
Student loans were the third most common source to pick up the bill for courses, housing and books. The average student borrowed $8,815 in federal loans.
The rate for those loans was the subject of debate in the Senate last week, as lawmakers considered a compromise that would offer some students lower rates for the next few years but would prescribe higher rates for future classes. The Senate is expected to vote on that White House-backed compromise this week.
"Rates on every single new college loan will come down this school year, offering relief to nearly 11 million borrowers," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said yesterday.
The White House estimates the average undergraduate student would save $1,500 in interest charges if Congress acts before leaving town for the August recess. A vote has not been scheduled.
Last year, the average family turned to grants and scholarships to cover 30 percent of college costs. Parents' income and savings covered 27 percent of the bill and student borrowing covered 18 percent.
"We have moved into a post-recession reality in how people pay for college," Ducich said.
Parents' enthusiasm for college has not shriveled, though. The survey found 85 percent of parents saw college bills as an investment in their children's future.
"We're in a new normal where big-ticket items like college, families will pay for them but won't stress about them too much," said Cliff Young, managing director at Ipsos.
One-fifth of parents added work hours to pay for college and half of students increased their work hours, too.