The great news is that your child has selected and been accepted to a terrific college. Now comes the hard part: Finding a way to pay for that experience.

It’s never too early to begin thinking about ways to fund the college dream. Hopefully, your family has stashed away a bit of savings. But even then, costs are rising. And it’s not just tuition and housing but fees for books, travel, and computers that can eat up dollars in a hurry.

Fortunately, there are multiple, creative ways to fund college tuition. One of the most important things is to look at all alternatives for additional financial sources when it comes paying for college.

Start with the FAFSA 

FAFSA (Federal Student Aid) is the largest source of financial aid, providing $150 billion to more than 13 million students each year. Federal and state grants represent the largest sources of aid for students. Students must submit a FAFSA application to receive consideration. FAFSA money comes in the form of grants, loans, and work-study funds and applications must be submitted for each year that a student plans to attend college.

The federal deadline to file for 2015–2016 aid is June 30, 2016. State aid deadlines vary. In some cases, early applicants are eligible for more money.

Some common myths about FAFSA are that families make too much money or students don’t have good enough grades to qualify. Don’t make those assumptions. Each year, an estimated 1.5 million students fail to apply and miss out on “free” money.

BestSchools.com offers a recently-updated FAFSA guide which includes an in-depth question-and-answer section. You can also use FAFSA4caster, available on the FAFSA homepage, to estimate the amount of federal student aid you could receive.

Grants

The beauty of grants, generally awarded on the basis of financial need, are that they don’t have to be repaid.

Common grants include:

  • Institutional—from your college when federal and state dollars are not enough
  • Federal Pell Grants—the largest grant program, based solely on need; can range from several hundred dollars to several thousand
  • Federal Supplement Education Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)—for neediest students (up to $4,000)
  • Federal TEACH Grants—for teachers in a high-need field. Recipients must agree to contract and service commitments
  • Subject-Specific Grants—in addition to teaching, some state governments and professional associations provide money for those pursuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and healthcare degrees
  • Fellowships—often based on undergraduate academic achievement and may include funds for research and living expenses

Scholarships

Like grants, scholarships do not have to be repaid.  They are generally based on academics, athletic skills or special talents.

Places to Find Scholarships:

Be sure to adhere to application deadlines and apply for as many scholarships as possible. Be on the lookout for specialty, niche, or unusual scholarships. There are awards for duck callers, vegetarians, and bowlers—even for those who creatively use duct tape.

Sometimes it’s about who you are. Scholarships are available to minority students via the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and the Gates Millennium Scholarship (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). Programs also exist for HispanicNative American, and Asian-American students as well as women who may be under-represented in some fields and locations. There are even scholarships for tall people, short people, those with disabled parents, and those who overcome their own disabilities.

Each institution does what it can to attract and retain students, taking into consideration their ability to pay.

  • Apply early for financial aid. Awards can be made prior to admissions decisions.
  • Consider alternatives. Some colleges cost substantially more than others; some majors require additional years of study or simply cost more.
  • Hasten graduation: Applying college credits earned during high school can help.

Corporations and major foundations are also an excellent source of scholarship dollars. One doesn’t necessarily have to work for a company like Coca-Cola or Microsoft to be eligible to earn a scholarship they provide. Some businesses offer scholarship programs to family and extended-family members.

ScholarshipAmerica.org lists numerous scholarships from businesses and foundations. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is one example of a foundation that provides grants for academic and artistic advancement. Some scholarship and college loan suppliers such as Sallie Mae, Cappex, and Niche conduct sweepstakes and award random winners. Beware that they may also contact you with offers based on your entry information.

Your Family and Community

Having more than one child in college at the same time can increase the amount of aid a family will receive. The marital and military status of you and your parents or guardians also comes into play.

Sources to Consider:

  • Personal, Parental, or Extended Family Savings: Some may have the ability to tap retirement funds or consider a home equity loan.
  • Job Income: Federal work-study jobs may be available on- or off-campus.
  • Applied Credits: Many colleges offer credit for classes completed in high school. This dual enrollment can reduce the final cost of college.
  • Community Groups, from Rotary, Kiwanis, Moose, and Elk to Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and parent–teacher organizations.
  • Religious Affiliations: Individual houses of worship, as well as regional groups, may offer scholarships.

Military Options

The U.S. Military offers multiple grant and loan opportunities. Each branch of the armed forces has its own financial aid and benefits programs and grants are available to children and spouses of service members killed or disabled in the line of duty.

Among financial aid benefits from the military:

Loan Options

As noted on Learning Liftoff, taking on debt should be a last resort. But for many students, taking out a loan to complete their college education will also be a necessary evil. It’s important to note that all loans are not created equal.

If you do take out a loan, be sure to compare lenders and all repayment details. According to an October 2015 survey by Iontuition, 47 percent of borrowers don’t know their student loan interest rate.

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Read more about college planning on Learning Liftoff, and view our accompanying infographic on managing college tuition costs.

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