There are three ways to pay for college: save money, borrow money or hope someone gives you money.
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At this point, people attending college in the fall are past the point of being able to save much for tuition, and going into debt isn't an attractive alternative. It would be pretty sweet to have someone else foot the bill, wouldn't it?
Scholarships are an amazing resource for students and families trying to pay for college. For that reason, most scholarships are extremely competitive and have deadlines well before the May 1 college-commitment deadline. High school students (especially juniors) should research scholarships now so they can plan to apply and maximize their chances of receiving financial awards.
Are There Still Scholarships Out There?
As for the graduating seniors, there's not much left, but that doesn't mean you're stuck. "There’s not a whole lot left," said Dan Evertsz, owner College Money Pros. "Most of your scholarships are probably about done, except for your local scholarships."
Finding those this time of year (to pay for fall 2014) will still be a challenge, but it's definitely worth researching if you need to close the cost gap between financial aid (including federal loans) and the cost of attendance.
"Wherever you write a check to pay a bill every month, they have a scholarship," Evertsz said. "Utilities, banks -- inquire if they have any more funds." He also said to look into local community organizations, service clubs and nonprofits. It can't hurt to make phone calls and ask about any available scholarship money.
When the Scholarship Well Runs Dry
Even if you've committed to a school and don't know how you'll cover the cost, you have options. There are parent loans and private student loans, but you can also explore avenues that don't involve borrowing additional money.
Some colleges have rolling admissions, meaning you can still apply to a less-expensive institution and start in the fall. If you're really struggling to come up with the means to pay, try calling the schools where you've been accepted and ask about remaining financial aid, Evertsz suggested.
The key to dealing with a dilemma like this is to keep an open mind and consider all alternatives. "You’re not stuck on that school," Evertsz said. He deals with a lot of students whose hearts are set on a particular college, and by the time they realize they can't afford it, it's a little late to make it work. "If you don’t have the money, you’re definitely not stuck on the school."
There's little left for graduating seniors, but now is the perfect time for other high schoolers to start working on scholarship applications. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it to reduce your out-of-pocket cost for a college education.
Evertsz encourages families to take a very aggressive approach to finding college funding. "I tell them they need to do 50 to 100 applications per month. I know it sounds overwhelming, and it can be overwhelming, but you need to look at it like a job," he said. "Out of 100 applications, you may get two scholarships a month, but that's two a month and maybe $24,000 after a year. ... You have to be serious about it."
The hard work would be worth it if the alternative is taking out a lot of student loans. Students are limited to $31,000 in federal loans over the course of their undergraduate education, and if you still owe money after merit and federal aid, high-interest parent loans and private student loans may be the only way to cover those costs. Dealing with education debt after graduation can seriously diminish your ability to achieve certain financial goals, like buying a car or a house, so it's best to keep debt to a minimum. An affordable college education can certainly include taking out student loans, as long as you're confident you can repay them.
Falling behind on loan payments can seriously damage your credit, which has ripple effects throughout your finances, so the decisions to take on education debt (or any debt) should be made carefully.
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