Everything You Need to Know About College Aid

Know the sources, learn the process and apply early to get your share of the college funding pot of gold.

The school of your or your child's dreams might be affordable only with the help of loans or scholarships. The sooner you apply, the better your chances are of getting money to help your kid go to college.

Technically, you have until next summer to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to receive federal funding for the 2009-2010 school year. But the federal government doesn't have an endless supply of financial aid. And many states have financial aid and grant application deadlines as early as March -- and in many cases you need to complete the FAFSA to apply for state money.

"By completing the application early and in advance of state and school deadlines, students and families have a better chance of securing cheap or even free money for college," says Martha Holler, spokesperson for Sallie Mae, which provides education loans. "Nearly eight out of ten full-time undergraduates receive some sort of money for college, so it is important to submit a FAFSA to qualify for your portion of the pot of gold."

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There's even a chance you or your child will get free money in the form of a grant or scholarship. Studies show that a third of all full-time undergraduates will receive a federal grant that does not have to be repaid. In fact, the federal government started offering two new grants in 2006: the Academic Competitiveness Grant and the National SMART Grant. However, Holler says a recent study suggests that 1.8 million students may have missed out on free money to pay for college simply because they did not apply.

And don't think just because you are an upper-income family that you have no chance of getting financial aid. There are federal, state and institutional financial aid options that are not based on financial need. "Even Donald Trump can submit the FAFSA and receive federal student loans," Holler says.

We've already told you that you have to apply early if you want to increase your chances of receiving college funding. But what are the sources of funding, how does the process work and what are other ways of improving the odds of getting tuition money? The stories below will tell you everything you need to know about financial aid.

Master the Financial Aid Process

Don't spend a dime for financial aid advice. Simply learn the system, the sources and apply early.

What Student Loan Squeeze?

Worried about your chances of getting money amid reports that student loans have dried up? Fear not. Federal loans are still available.

11 Student-Aid Traps to Avoid

You'll ace the FAFSA and maximize your free money if you watch for these pitfalls.

Free Money for College Students

Every bit helps, and scholarships aren't that hard to get. Really.

Free Money for Grad School

Here are four things you can do to boost your chances of getting someone to pay for your master's or PhD.

Tool: How Much Aid Can You Expect?

Fill out this simple worksheet to get an idea of how much colleges will expect you to contribute toward tuition.

Cameron Huddleston
Former Online Editor, Kiplinger.com

Award-winning journalist, speaker, family finance expert, and author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk.

Cameron Huddleston wrote the daily "Kip Tips" column for Kiplinger.com. She joined Kiplinger in 2001 after graduating from American University with an MA in economic journalism.