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Go to College for Free!

So you weren't valedictorian of your high-school class. Maybe your parents weren't able to save enough to put you through four years at Harvard. Maybe life called and you joined the workforce right after graduating and haven't made it back into the classroom just yet. Or maybe the money you earned at that after-school job went from paycheck to gas tank, with very little left over for savings.

Regardless, there's no way you can afford to go to college, right?

Stop!

You can still go to school. You just need to start with a few simple steps.

Traditional thinking
The traditional way of thinking about attending college on a budget centers on two main tenets: Don't go to an expensive school, and DO get up to your eyeballs in debt. But it doesn't have to be this way -- at least, not entirely.

Sure, a community college or public four-year institution may be less expensive than a private Ivy League school. But for a number of reasons, you may find that the Ivy League school is where you belong. On the other hand, you might find that a public university is just what you want. Or you might want to go to community college first. But a particular university's expense should not be your only reason for ruling it out.

Second, contrary to what many university counselors assert, you do not have to take on tons of debt to go to school. There may be good reasons to take out a loan -- for instance, if scholarships and other income will take care of most of your expenses, but you just need a little extra boost, or if the school you're attracted to is a bit too expensive for your wallet but will provide the educational experience of your dreams. Short of a home or perhaps a car, this is probably one of the only cases in which I'll say this: Loans are not synonymous with evil. Heck, as I write this, my very own family continues to repay student loans. But you don't have to go that route if you do a little work and planning on some other fronts.

So if you don't eschew a college just because of its cost, and if you don't sign up for every loan under the sun, then how on earth are you going to be able to afford a decent education? You've got a lot of options, but here are a few to get you started.

Scholarship websites
It's one of the first things most high-school guidance counselors tell students who are preparing to graduate: Search for scholarships. But amid projects and papers, this advice often gets lost in the shuffle, and by the time you get around to looking for financial aid, the deadline has often passed by. And for would-be students already out in the working world who want to finish up a first degree or go back for a second one, the stresses of juggling work, family, and home life often horn in on the scholarship search.

True confessions: I knew about these websites throughout my college career. I even dutifully registered with several of the most promising sites and printed out the relevant opportunities. But when the time came to actually fill out the application forms, gather letters of recommendation, and perhaps write a short essay or two, I wimped out. Judging by the results of some of my more focused friends, I missed out on hundreds of dollars of scholarship money. To this day, it kills me to think I let free money sit out there for someone else to take. Even if I hadn't won a dime in financial aid, if I'd filled out those applications I would at least have had a chance.

What it comes down to, really, is a rejiggering of priorities. Obviously, don't let your spouse and kids fall by the wayside -- and don't quit your job or drop out of high school to search for financial aid -- but surely you can find a little free time each day. Whether that's an hour of Desperate Housewives or 30 minutes of before-bed reading, you've likely got at least a few minutes to look for a little extra dough for your education. And you needn't even change out of your pajamas to do so.

Check with your would-be department
In my experience, the single most untouched resource for financial aid is your chosen department at your potential school. After you apply, go down to the department office on campus and discuss your options. You'll likely be surprised at the number of opportunities afforded to you there.

Granted, if you're a potential graduate student (pursuing either a master's or a doctorate), you'll probably have more lucrative choices. You can apply to become a teaching assistant (helping a professor teach a class -- or even teaching your own), a research assistant (helping professors with their research), a member of the office staff, and more. Also, keep an eye out for any departmental fellowships or stipends that may not be mentioned on the university's website. Often, if the chair of the department gets to know you and you put your best foot forward early on, he or she can carve out a spot for your talents -- and pay you for it.

But undergraduates shouldn't feel disheartened. Work-study programs, undergraduate fellowships, library and laboratory assistantships, and more are all good avenues to pursue. And don't forget about possible ROTC programs and the like.

Call your department to set up an appointment with the chairperson, and treat the visit like a job interview. Don't be afraid to ask what resources and opportunities are available. Certainly, some schools will have more undergraduate aid available than others. But isn't the possibility of a year's tuition and/or a stipend worth a half-hour visit?

The advantage of this kind of aid is that you can actually make money while the university pays for your education. As a teaching assistant, I received a tuition reimbursement (equal to about 85% of my class fees) while also receiving a regular paycheck. Though funds are likely going to be tight, try to sock a little of your paycheck away into savings or investment vehicles. Index funds such as the Vanguard Total Stock Market (FUND: VTSMX  ) , which holds a plethora of well-known companies such as Pfizer (NYSE: PFE  ) , ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) , are a great place to plunk any extra cash that comes your way. Over the long term, they'll likely give you a better return than a plain-vanilla savings account -- and this, in turn, will propel you to your postgraduate financial goals even faster.

The Foolish bottom line
Pursuing a college education doesn't have to be a futile -- or expensive -- endeavor. It likely won't be easy, and it might take some creativity, but you're going to need some ingenuity to make it through all those classes anyway, right? Why not start now and earn some money while you're at it?

For more on how to make the most of your money, take advantage of thisfree report, the first in our "Master Your Money" series. In it, Tom Gardner tells you how to make sure the companies you put your faith -- and investing dollars -- in are worthy of your trust. All you have to do isclick hereto claim it.

This article was originally published on Aug. 25, 2005. It has been updated.

Hope Nelson-Pope is online coordinating editor at The Motley Fool and used teaching and research assistantships to fund her trip through graduate school. She owns none of the companies mentioned in this article. Pfizer is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.


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