I recently went through the college thing myself (about 6 years ago) with parents who either didn't go to college or went to a college their mom and dad literally choose for a year (and subsequently dropped out because "college" wasnt for them).
The two biggest things I wish I would have known going in are these:
(a) college is an investment... it sucks to be poor at the time, but if you are truly committed to finishing the education, then it is worth it and that is why there are loans (and grants if you qualify). Don't sell yourself short because you can't "afford" it... 80% of americans (and pretty much 100% of 18 year olds without big time support from mom and dad) really can't afford to pay for college out of pocket... but its hard to be in the workforce without a degree, so its worth the investment. This is a hard concept at 18 when the biggest sum of money you've really dealt with is probably a few hundred dollars (heck, its hard for us in our twenties and thirties), but I think its an important thing to ponder both as a parent and as the student.
(b) It is very difficult to find a sense of community at commuter schools... this includes your community college and/or local state school. If you think that college includes making all these new friends and having new social experiences while still being held accountable in class, then you ought to consider going to a smaller state school that isn't in a big metro area or a private liberal arts college (where they might make you live in dorms to foster that sense of community). Also, beware when leaving the state to go to a different states' commuter school... most of the kids attending are from the area, already have family and friends there, etc. A way to gauge how much of a commuter school a state school is is to just ask: What percentage of your undergraduates live in the dorms? How many of the kids who live in the dorms are foriegn students? If less than 40-50% of the domestic kids live on campus, then your kid may have a hard time finding his/her niche in the college community.
Other general things that I think people need to realize:
(a) don't choose a school for an undergraduate degree "program"... unless your child is an exception, most don't really know exactly what they want to do and thus would benifit from choosing a school on overall standards, feel of the campus, support systems, etc. If they really think they want to go more into science (engineering, computers, medicine), then make sure the science program is fairly strong as those types of classes are generally more expensive to offer due to labs, etc and may be limited at a smaller school.
(b) private liberal art colleges with a good financial aid package are often more affordable than state universities.... keep in mind that your child may not want to live at home for the entire experience, so factor what it would cost to get an aparment (plus food plus utilities, etc) and compare that to dorm costs. Don't overlook a college that you love the feel of because of the word "private."
(c) if you do go the community (or junior) college route (and that is a great way to go for a lot of people), then plan on getting an AA (associates or 2 year degree). AA's transfer much more nicely as a degree than as equivalent credits to Universities and will likely be the more efficent way to go.
There are no hard and fast rules for picking a college. Visit several different types and see how you and your child feel about them... once you pick the "type(s)" of school, then start looking at 10-15 schools. Most "advisors" say to at least start the application process for 6 to 8 schools.... 1 or 2 dreams schools, 1 or 2 fall back schools, and 3 to 4 middle of the road schools.