How to Get the Most Financial Aid

If saving for college isn't an option, financial aid will  start to look pretty appealing.
If saving for college isn't an option, financial aid will  start to look pretty appealing.
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There's no doubt a college education can end up costing quite a bit of money, but chances are excellent it'll more than pay for itself over a lifetime. According to the College Board, if students enter a public university after high school and graduate with a degree four years later, they'll typically recoup the full cost of their education -- and the money they would have made working during that time period -- within 11 years [source: The College Board]. But better than that, as of 2005, graduates with a four-year degree working throughout their lifetimes will typically earn more than 60 percent more money than someone with only a high school diploma [source: The College Board].

Since not everyone has the spare money on hand to pay for college, many take advantage of financial aid to help foot the bill. Most kids shouldn't hold out too much hope that they can get a free ride through financial aid alone, but many can significantly defray the cost of their education with smart financial planning.

Some of the things financial aid can help pay for include tuition and fees, room and board, books and computers, supplies and transportation, and even childcare for dependents if there are any. Potential resources run the gamut from federal, state and local governments to a multitude of private sources and the colleges themselves.

These institutions offer a variety of grants, scholarships, fellowships and work-study programs -- four closely related terms that often overlap in form and function depending on the source -- so it pays to spend some time reading about everything that's offered. Chances are, it'll be pretty easy for potential students to narrow down the field once they start reviewing the requirements for each option. Additionally, students can consider routes like student loans, parent loans and the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC).

On the next page, we'll look at some of the steps students can take to help keep the cost of their college education under control.