Celebs cheating? How ordinary kids can afford college

Celebrities may have more pull to get their kids into the best schools-- but what about those with more modest means? Getting in is just the first hurdle. Paying for it can be a bigger obstacle. There are ways to get the funds you need. But don't wait.

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It's a crisis for many students. We've heard about struggling young academics skipping meals, or living in their cars for lack of money. Many incur heavy student loan debt that can burden them for decades.

"We shouldn't have students going hungry,'' said Debbie Cochrane, executive vice president at The Institute for College Access and Success. "We shouldn't have students who need to sleep in their cars."

For millions of youngsters, getting a college degree is a dream. It can mean a better job, higher pay, making a difference in the world. But the financial struggle is often greater than anticipated.

"We've always focused on helping students pay tuition but that is just a small part of the expense,'' Cochrane said. "In fact the bulk of students' costs are living costs. They need to pay for an apartment they might have to rent, and food to eat so they can focus on schoolwork."

Costs can reach tens of thousands of dollars per year including room, board, fees and books. And while millions of students take on loans that saddle them with debt, a survey by Bankrate.com found 75 percent of graduates wish they'd taken a different route.

"A majority of working age Americans had to delay a major financial decision because of student loan debt,'' Bankrate's Mark Hamrick said. "That includes delaying marriage, having kids, buying a house... And one in 10 said they wouldn't have gone to school at all. So there's a huge array of regrets out there."

Hamrick says parents and grandparents should consider opening a 529 savings plan while their kids are still young. They invest their funds in the intervening years, and growth is tax-free. Also, Hamrick says it's important to apply for financial aid early; many scholarships and grants are awarded on a first-come-first-served basis.

"About one in three (student borrowers in the survey) said they would have applied for more scholarships,'' Hamrick said. "They only realized later how important that is as a way to fund college."

RELATED: College Board Guide for Financial Aid

Millions of dollars in scholarship money-- many from local businesses and community organizations-- go unclaimed every year. Many college admissions counselors urge students to submit as many scholarship applications as possible, though it can be a daunting task. Each one may require writing persuasive essays about why the student is worthy of the funds.

RELATED: College Cost Calculator

Here are some basic tips for funding an education:

First, submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, as early as possible. Applications usually are accepted in October of the year before the student will start college. That puts the student in the running for a wide range of grants and scholarships including the federal Pell Grant, and California's Cal Grant. Students should also consider applying for a work-study job on campus. It's beneficial not just for the money, but it can bolster a resume. Hamrick says a campus job also helps students develop skills for time management and discipline.

Also, students who don't get enough financial aid should go to their college and ask for more, Cochrane says. Often colleges are willing to help.

The College Board has a calculator showing how much you can expect to pay for a year of school -- depending where you go. It also has a lot of information on financial aid and scholarships. You can find more information below:

College Cost Calculator
Paying for College
FAFSA

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.
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