If trying to get accepted into the college or university you want to attend seems intimidating, wait until you try to figure out how to pay for it. With higher education costs skyrocketing during the past couple of decades, you'll want to spend just as much time researching financial aid, scholarships and grants as you do deciding where you want to attend and what you want to study -- maybe even more.
Some $3.4 billion scholarship money is available to students, according to Fastweb.com, a free database of scholarships. Not all require stellar grades or a winning essay. But pretty much all of them require that you apply.
So start searching early to find out whether scholarship money for college is available for you. (You don't have to decide on a particular school before you start your research.) There are scholarships based on everything from ethnicity, honors earned in school, to unique situations such as those who are orphans, children of single parents or who have received foster care.
As Fastweb says, securing scholarships "is a numbers game. The more scholarships you apply for, the better your chances of winning."
College grants are similar to scholarships in that you generally don't have to repay them. But they are usually based on need, rather than merit or other qualifications.
Most people have heard of Federal Pell Grants which are available to students who qualify based on need. They offer a maximum of $5,645 in aid for the 2013-2014 award year. (You can check the Department of Education website Studentaid.ed.gov for current information.) In addition, though there are several other federal education grants including Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) for undergraduate students with exceptional financial need.
Schools themselves may offer grants, and there are organizations that offer grants for minorities, women and other groups.
If you are a prospective student, complete the FAFSA - the Free Application for Federal Student Aid - even if you aren't sure you will qualify for financial assistance. Just as the name suggests, it is completely free and it can help you find out how federal aid can help you pay for a college education. As the Department of Education points out, millions of students are awarded approximately $150 billion in aid in the form of grants, low-interest loans and work-study funds to help them pay for college.
But in order to be eligible, you must fill out the FAFSA. Most experts recommend you apply as close to Jan. 1 as possible. Some aid is on a first-come, first-served basis. In addition, schools, and federal and state agencies, also have deadlines.
If you have exhausted your options for scholarships and grants, consider working while you are in school to help cover expenses. This may mean taking fewer classes and delaying the day you graduate, but it may also allow you to graduate with less debt. You may also want to consider working for an employer that provides tuition reimbursement benefits. Some students are able to get their degrees paid for this way. It can be a particularly attractive option for those pursuing a graduate degree for which less financial aid is available.
Some students save significant money by going to a community college for two years and then transferring to a four-year institution. You have to be careful if you take this route to ensure that the credits you earn initially will transfer, but if you do your homework, this can be an excellent way to get a diploma from your school of choice at a fraction of the cost.