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 of classes 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, you've just lost yourself four years of college, right? There's no way you'll be able to afford going at this point, so why bother applying?


You can still go to school. In fact, a quick look at this information should be all it takes to convince you of the financial importance of a higher education. You can continue with your studies and invest in your future. You can even save up some funds for retirement along the way.

It starts 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 completely.

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, the one that caters to your major and career interests. On the other hand, you might find that, like me, a public four-year 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 go into debt to go to school. That said, there are good reasons to take out a loan if need be -- 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. Furthermore, when would-be students already out in the working world 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 the needed 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 in the end, 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 for the sake of searching for financial aid -- but surely you can find a little free time within 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 each day that you can put to work earning a little extra dough for your education. And you needn't even change out of your pajamas to do so.,,,, and more all offer a plethora of options for financial aid. Apply to as many as you can, even if some of them look like a stretch or a long shot -- you never know! Personal experience tells me there's a good chance your hard work will reap a solid reward.

Check with your would-be department
In my experience, the single most untouched and available resource for garnering financial aid resides within your chosen department at your potential school. After you apply, it's definitely worth your while to 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 by all of the opportunities presented to grad students. It's certainly worth a visit to your department office to find out what your school can do for you! 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 -- for emergencies, for your postgraduate life, and yes, for retirement. Though you're just getting started in your major, post-college life will be here sooner than you think.

The Foolish bottom line
The fact of the matter is, pursuing a college education doesn't have to be a futile 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 yourself some money while you're at it?

It's not too late to go to college, whether you're 18 or 88. You can do it if you start pursuing financial aid opportunities today. You've got a lot of options, from federal grants and loans to assistantships and independent scholarships. Yes, searching for opportunities will take some digging on the front end, and yes, it will take some time. But walking across the stage with a bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree in hand will make the trip worthwhile.

And while you're working on supporting your college career, don't forget about retirement! Even if your departure from the workforce is light-years away, take a free trial of Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement to see opportunities and ideas you can put into place now.

Hope Nelson-Pope is online coordinating editor at The Motley Fool and used teaching and research assistantships to fund her trip through graduate school. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.