"The jobs that are growing, the industries that are growing and the markets that are going to be available to students are those that require higher education," says Brittania Morey, spokeswoman for the Iowa College Access Network. "Students who are choosing to go to college are preparing themselves for the work world of tomorrow."
According to a 2010 report by Georgetown University, 63 percent of jobs offered by 2018 will require postsecondary education. Morey says students can cut college costs by searching for scholarships early and investigating awards in their community.
Don't eliminate yourself
The biggest mistake students make is believing they're not eligible for college aid. A 2009 study by Finaid.org showed that 2.3 million students who would have been eligible for the federal Pell Grant missed free college cash because they didn't apply.
While students attending pricey institutions frequently apply for aid, the likelihood is lower at cheaper schools and community colleges, says Diana Fuentes-Michel, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission.
"That's where folks tend to believe that they wouldn't qualify for financial aid because of the low cost," she says.
The U.S. Department of Education reports that all students, regardless of income or financial assets, are eligible for up to $27,000 in federal Stafford Loans over four years.
File for FAFSA fast
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, qualifies students for federal grants, loans and work-study jobs as well as some private and state-sponsored awards. Filing it as close to Jan. 1 as possible maximizes your college aid eligibility, says Lynda Forster, CEO of the financial aid consulting group Collegiate Capital Corp. in Mineola, N.Y.
"Most (families) think that financial aid forms must be completed after the tax returns are done, and that is not accurate," she says. "You cannot wait until April. All of the money is already awarded."
Since federal grants are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, Forster recommends that families file the form using estimates of their income and assets. If they need to change something, families can file corrections at FAFSA.ed.gov.
Choose your major carefully
From private loan-forgiveness programs to state and federal grants, there's money available to students majoring in high-demand fields. While the federal government offers up to $4,000 per year to future educators through the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, or TEACH, Grant Program, individual states offer similar college financing initiatives for up-and-coming teachers, nurses, fire and emergency medical technicians, public defenders, child care employees, health care workers and those pursuing jobs in other fields.
Students who know their major can check with their school's financial aid office to see if there are awards available in their fields. Professional organizations and nonprofits, such as the National Restaurant Association and the National Environmental Health Association, also offer awards to students in specific fields of study.
Find a 'safety' school
Guidance counselors recommend that students apply to an academically safe school. Martha Savery, director of community outreach for the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority, recommends that students apply to a financially safe school, too.
"We always tell families (not to) self-select based on the cost that you see in the admissions material because many colleges and universities are able to provide a substantive financial aid package," Savery says.
As of Oct. 29, all institutions that receive federal funding are required to post a net price calculator on their website that can help families estimate college costs with aid factored in, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Students also can compare net prices of different schools by income level on the NCES website.
Meet the deadlines
With more students vying for aid, there's stiff competition for dollars. Don't eliminate yourself by missing a deadline, Savery says.
"If your child was applying for admission to XYZ university, you would not contact that admissions office and say 'You know, I'd like just three or four more days just to tweak my essay,'" she says. "(Families) need to look at the deadlines from a financial aid perspective in exactly the same way."
Ask the boss
A 2010 study by Business and Legal Resources, a compliance consulting firm in Old Saybrook, Conn., showed that nearly 85 percent of U.S. companies offer tuition reimbursement to employees. That's up from 52 percent in 2007.
There are some pretty big catches. More than 75 percent of employers require that course work be job-related to qualify for reimbursement. Companies also may restrict how much reimbursement employees can get, require a certain grade point average or limit reimbursement to employees at a certain job level. More than 60 percent of companies offering reimbursement require employees to stay with the organization after completing study.