With increased financial burdens placed upon families today, the decision to attend college is less about what career path to follow and more about how to afford it. While college funds or family savings were the previous methods for paying for a child’s higher education, today more students are bearing the responsibilities of borrowing and repayment themselves. Luckily, there are several options available to finance college and make it more affordable.

Scholarships, Grants and Work Study Programs

Many people overlook the free money available through these programs, but these should be considered before securing loans that require repayment. Scholarships can range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars and cover tuition, books, and housing.

Many scholarships are merit-based as determined by high school grades or college admission exam scores. Others are awarded through community or company funds. A listing of scholarships with requirements and deadlines can be found on all college, community and company websites. In addition, www.scholarships.com and www.fastweb.com are free online resources that identify many more scholarship opportunities.

Grants, like scholarships, are a source of free college funding. Grants are often need-based and awarded through colleges, federal and state governments, and corporations. Students that qualify for grant programs include those with low-income, minorities, women, veterans and those entering specific professions.

The Federal Work-Study (FWS) program provides college financing in exchange for part-time work at participating colleges, government agencies, and companies. To determine eligibility, all federally funded programs require students to complete a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form available at www.fafsa.ed.gov/.

Subsidized and Unsubsidized Student Loans

The U.S. Department of Education offers low-interest student loans to eligible undergraduates with financial need to supplement any shortfall in college expenses. Direct Subsidized Loans allow a six-month grace period after graduation before repayment begins and do not accrue interest until that time. Direct Unsubsidized Loans are available to both undergraduate and graduate students with no financial need restrictions. Interest accrues from the initial disbursement and is added to the principal amount owing. Like other government-funded programs, a FAFSA form must be completed before an award package is determined. Although these loans must be repaid, low-interest rates and deferment options make them the best value for students.

Private Student Loans

Often students exceed limits of scholarships or subsidized loans and must seek additional money sources to pay for college. Many private financial institutions offer student loans with competitive rates and repayment terms similar to the government-funded programs. However, most expect applicants to meet stringent income, credit history, and employment requirements or include a co-signer to obtain the loan. Care should be taken to avoid disreputable organizations. Applicants should be wary of variable interest rates with no caps, immediate repayment requirements, late payment penalties or hidden fees. SallieMae Private Loans encourages responsible borrowing by clearly defining terms, providing fixed and variable interest rates and offering repayment options that match the student’s earning potential. SallieMae also supports financial independence by allowing a release of the co-signer after graduation and 12 consecutive loan payments.

Resource: 25 Best Value Universities

Before even starting college, students must do their homework. It will take time to research and review all the financing options available. However, the effort will ultimately be rewarded with peace of mind and an affordable college education.

See also: Saving for College – 5 Easy Tips