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Four Steps to Paying for College

FOXNews.com did some homework to find the best ways to pay for college. Here are some tips:

1. It’s Never Too Early to Do Your Homework

Find scholarships and grants on your own, don’t expect your high school or your chosen college to do this for you. A local church, civic organization, retailer or chamber of commerce may offer scholarship dollars for qualified students with outstanding achievements. Start searching early; don’t wait for classes to begin.

“The reality may be that [a student] only gets a 20-minute meeting one day in the fall with a college counselor,” Boyle said.

Video: Jenna's Dilemma Part 2: It's Her Life

Jenna Patterson of Monroe, N.Y. is heading off to college soon, but Jenna and her parents have yet to decide on the best college for Jenna, and are struggling with how they will pay for it. In the second installment of this FOX series, Jenna's mom says that Jenna may have to help pay for some of the costs herself.

Explore all resources made available by your high school and the Web.

Helpful Resources:

· Independent college advisory programs, such as myFootpath.com’s “Prep HQ” program, which connects families to a network of high schools and colleges

· Non-profit groups

· Peer-to-peer sites, such as CollegeConfidential.com, that offer valuable perspectives from other students

· State government programs that offer money to outstanding students

“Take advantage of every opportunity, they ARE there,” Boyle said.

2) Your Talents and Interests Could Pay Off: Merit-Based Aid

“A middle class student should always consider merit aid if they have a decent record — it doesn’t cost anything to apply,” said Joe Kent, director of merit-based scholarships at the University of Richmond.

“Certainly there has been a recent growth [in merit-based scholarships] — a backlash — there is the sense that it would be nice if more money was put into need-based aid,” Kent said. It provides students with a practical opportunity to earn money toward a tuition that they otherwise could not afford.

As the national trend continues to progress toward more merit-based aid programs, the University of Richmond has followed suit. In the first year of their newly revamped merit-based program, Richmond offered 50 scholarships for 765 entering students (approximately 1 scholarship per 15 students) ranging from the Oldham Scholarship, which covers full room and board for all four years; to the Weinstein Scholarship, which awards a solitary student from Virginia, yearly.

The Richmond scholarship program previously had four subsections — some offered half tuition, others offered two-thirds — in short, the system was confusing.

Explaining the evolution of the program, Kent said: “There was a change because the other programs were hard for people to get a handle on — kids applied to all four programs … now it’s easier to deal with admission people.”

Most other public and private universities follow a similar mold and encourage students to test the merit-based scholarship waters.

“A student should always see if they’re available for financial aid," Kent said. "It is possible to have both [financial aid grants and a merit-based scholarship]. Most are large enough to cover full tuition plus most room and board.”

Princeton University, like other Ivy League schools, offers a different perspective in that financial aid is fully need-based and without any merit-based scholarships.

Since the restructuring of the financial aid program in 1998, which replaced a $4,000-$5,000 student loan with straight grants, Princeton's incoming class has gone from having 40 percent of students on aid to 54 percent, effectively dispelling the myth that Princeton does not respond to students in need.

3) Filling Out the FAFSA

Parents or guardians of traditional-age students usually fill out the FAFSA — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

While it is not mandatory for a parent of guardian to fill out the forms, make sure that the person doing the work lists themselves as a "preparer" at the end of the form. Preparers will have to provide a social security number or employer identification number to verify that the information they report is correct to the best of their knowledge.

You can get a FAFSA form from your school's financial aid office. FAFSA on the Web allows you to complete and submit your financial aid application electronically from any computer. If you do not have a computer at home, you can get free access to one at your local library.

The best place to look for help before you start filling out your FAFSA is at your school's financial aid office. Schedule appointments with your school’s financial aid officer as often as necessary. Do not expect them to come to you.

If you already have started filling out your application and you need help with a specific question, the FAFSA site offers links with answers, including live, private help from a customer service representative.

4) Watch Out for Gimmicks and Scams

As many legitimate college counseling services continue to grow, a number of scam programs have sprung up along with them. These companies prey on the fear of college-bound families and make promises they clearly cannot fulfill. Investigate a program’s credentials before paying for “help” you might not need.

“Stay away from any company that guarantees financial aid. That guarantee will mean they will help you get a student loan — then they can turn and say a student loan is financial aid,” warned Boyle.

Click here to visit Foxnews.com's special section on college life, College 101.

For more tools and tips on preparing financially for college, click here for the FOXBusiness.com's College Planning page.