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College-bound students have a number of scholarship opportunities at their disposal if they research properly.Some would say the value of a college education is priceless, though prospective students may have reason to think otherwise. College tuition has risen significantly in recent years, and young adults are graduating with larger amounts of student loan debt. Although loans have become one of the primary ways students are financing their education, students and parents should check out an oft-overlooked resource before taking on debt: scholarships.

Thousands of scholarships go unclaimed each year because many students are unaware they exist. And while it’s true that the process of finding applicable scholarships is more time-intensive than that of applying for loans and grants, which require you to fill out one form, the extra effort is worth it in the end. With the right scholarship package, you may save thousands over the course of your education or even graduate debt-free.

[Related: 8 Ways to Ease the Student Loan Burden]

Reach Out for Help

If you’re a high school senior, you can begin your scholarship search by speaking with your high school or university financial aid counselor, both of whom can tell you which school-sponsored scholarships are available for matriculating students. But don’t stop there. Thousands of scholarships are also offered each year by community organizations, corporations, personal donors and volunteer groups. Scholarship eligibility may be based on community involvement, financial need, your intended major, athletics or a contest. You can seek out these funds by researching online or speaking with organizations to which you belong.

Watch for Scams

Due to the vast number of scholarship opportunities that exist, it’s also important that you be on guard for scammers offering college funding. Some fake websites may model themselves after legitimate organizations, and attach words like “federal” or “national” in the scholarship name. It’s important to know the common scams that exist and keep in mind that no credible organization will require you to pay for your scholarship or impose a fee. Additionally, avoid “guaranteed” sources of funding or those that ask for something in return. Before you apply for any type of funding opportunity, do your research and make sure the organization is legitimate.

The college experience can be rewarding and advantageous down the road, and finding affordable payment options can greatly reduce your debt burden later in life. Make sure you speak to friends, counselors and even current students to learn as much as you can about free financing options, such as scholarships, grants and work-study programs.

[Related: 5 Strategies Towards Free Higher Ed Learning]

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