"I'm not saving for college. My child will get a scholarship or financial aid." I can't tell you how many times I've heard this phrase in conversations with other parents - even among welleducated, affluent parents.

"I'm not saving for college. My child will get a scholarship or financial aid."

I can't tell you how many times I've heard this phrase in conversations with other parents - even among welleducated, affluent parents. It makes me cringe, because here's the truth: You can't count on scholarships or financial aid alone to pay for college, even if your child has good grades, stellar SAT scores and is a star athlete.

We all want to believe our kids are exceptional enough to win a scholarship. But counting on it is wishful thinking. It's also a result of desperation: Strapped parents want to sugarcoat the fact that money is tight. Some parents, even with six-figure incomes, are barely paying the bills and don't feel they can save for college. Opining about future scholarships eases some of today's stress.

But the truth is clear. "For nearly all parents, it would be preposterous to assume that someone else will pay for their child's education," said Tom Mortenson, higher-education policy analyst with the research group Postsecondary Education Opportunity. "That is fantasy."

Even if a student gets a scholarship, "it will cover only a small fraction of one year's college attendance costs, and it may not be renewable for subsequent years in college," Mortenson said. "The net price (of college) will be paid by the student (and) family and no one else. Pay now or pay later are the only choices."

Let's look at some of the sobering numbers. According to U.S. News & World Report, only 54 of the more than 5,000 U.S. colleges provide scholarships large enough to meet all of a student's financial need. Another 24 promise to meet all the needs of students with family incomes of about $40,000 or less.

The average family in each income bracket generally faces a shortfall between the expected family contribution determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the financial aid received - including grants and scholarships - and the actual cost of attending college. For students from families earning $80,000 or less, the average gap was $6,800, according to Postsecondary Education Opportunity.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 59 percent of undergraduate students in the U.S. receive some form of grant or scholarship, and about 25 percent of
those get a scholarship.

In 2012, the average award - including scholarships and grants - at a four-year college was $10,480. But that's deceiving.

The average was $6,660 at public colleges, $18,180 for nonprofit colleges and $5,170 at for-profit colleges. That sounds great, until you consider the total cost of college.

After those grants and scholarships were awarded, parents were still on the hook for an average of $17,510 a year ($12,890 for public colleges, $24,430 for non-profit schools and $21,740 for forprofit schools).

For parents counting on a sports scholarship, consider this ScholarshipStats.com data: The average soccer scholarship is $4,815 for boys and $5,366 for girls, with only about 10 percent of high school players competing in college. For basketball, the average scholarship is $5,493 for boys and $6,625 for girls, with about 6 percent competing in college.

The takeaway from all of this? You can't count on grants and scholarships to cover all college costs. Save for college, even if it's only a little bit at a time, and start now. The minimum deposit for Ohio's 529 college savings plan is only $25.

--Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance for The Columbus Dispatch, bankrate.com and middlepathfinance.com.