According to a study by the College Board, investing in a college education is one of the smartest things a person can do for his or her bank account. The study estimated a degree adds, on average, $300,000 to an individual's earnings over the course of a career, after things like inflation and the cost of tuition are taken into account [source: Clark].
Still, while it's nice for college students to think about all the money they'll be making down the road, their tuition bills are waiting for them now -- and those bills can be daunting. In-state tuition at a public college has climbed to an average of $7,020 a year, while tuition for private universities now tops $26,000, and that's without room and board [source: Damast].
The good news for students and parents alike is that, as tuition has risen, so has the amount of available financial aid. In the United States, for instance, the government is set to award $168 billion in aid over the course of 2010 [source: Yip]. Add in other types of aid such as scholarship money and fellowships, and those tuition numbers start to look much more reasonable. After aid money is considered, students at public universities actually pay closer to $1,600 a year in tuition, and tuition at private colleges drops to $11,900 for students at private schools [source: Damast].
Knowing financial aid is out there and knowing how to get a hold of it are two separate things. Every student is different, and accordingly, the aid available to each student differs as well. Depending on a variety of factors, students may qualify for scholarships, grants, loans or work-related aid. Although some financial aid has to be paid back down the road, we'll focus specifically on free or "gift" financial aid that never needs to be repaid.
Free financial aid can come from any number of sources, such as federal and state government, businesses, nonprofit organizations and educational institutions. Before you think "there's no way someone in my situation would qualify for free financial aid," consider all the factors that go into awarding financial aid. School performance, family income levels, subject of study and numerous other considerations determine aid eligibility, meaning every student should at least apply for financial aid and see what happens. To get started, read on to learn about how scholarships work and how you can get one.