Financial aid is a catch-all term referring to any program that offers money to assist with the costs associated with being a student. This includes tuition help, scholarships, living stipends, textbook costs, childcare benefits, work grants, entrepreneurship support and more. Aid can come from any number of sources - state, local and federal government, the college itself, professional organizations, private charities and many others.
There are so many substantial financial aid programs to take advantage of that there are few reasons why anyone who doesn't want to should need to pay anything for their education. For students willing to work hard to qualify for aid programs, almost anyone can get help to pay for the majority of their education regardless of how much money their parents make every year or where they go to college. A student should go to college where they want to go. Cost is no object to students who are willing to do what it takes to get every last cent of financial aid that they can qualify for.
One significant thing that makes it easier to pay for college are the heavy subsidies provided to it by government at all levels. Public universities in particular often offer substantial financial incentives for students from their area to attend local universities. They frequently benefit from tuition reductions, tax credits, preferred admission and other perks that make it easier to afford tuition. Many states offer special programs for particular student paths, such as engineering or basic science.
Many colleges offer special aid programs based on need. For people from relatively poor families, this can be a very good way to get additional money for college that supplements government aid programs. For single mothers and other groups, many educational grants are available from state, local and the federal government. Inquire at your college financial aid office about grant opportunities in your area. If you have a residence out of state, you can often get grants from your home area and apply them to education in another state.
Contests frequently award substantial rewards to participants. Many of these scholarship contests actually receive relatively few entries, but they are still a rather hit-and-miss form of financial aid to pursue. Generally, it is a safer strategy to only pursue contests after already exploiting all other avenues of available financial aid. Prioritize contests that you can be relatively well assured of at least placing well in. Look for contests that speak to your academic passions.
The majority of financial aid programs require students to apply to them every year before January 1st. Be sure to inquire about new opportunities for financial aid every year. In many cases, demonstrated good academic performance in a particular field can qualify students for scholarships that they may not even know that they are qualified for. Asking college department heads directly about scholarship programs is a very good way to ensure that you are doing all that you can to provide for your education.