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The cost of a college education is not going down. According to College Board, tuition and fees at a moderate in-state public college averaged $18,943 a year for the 2014-2015 academic year. That cost rose to $42,419 a year for a moderate private college.

Numbers like these are enough to send parents into shock.

However, there is some good news: Parents can help offset the cost of tuition and fees by helping their children find scholarships.

Scholarships are preferable to student loans for one obvious reason: Scholarship money is gift money. Students do not have to repay scholarships after they graduate. There are plenty of scholarships out there. Students do not have to be straight-A students or sports stars to qualify for them.

In fact, Scholarship America estimates that there is around $3 billion in private scholarship dollars available to college students every year. Students and their parents just need to know where to find this money.

Finding scholarships

However, how do parents find scholarships? Thanks to the Internet, the search for scholarship dollars is pretty easy. A good place to start is at scholarship search engines such as scholarships.com, collegeboard.com and fastweb.com.

To use these search engines, parents, and their children will have to enter relevant information, everything from students' grade point averages to their extracurricular activities and interests. The search engines will then return possible scholarship opportunities.

The more information parents and their children provide the more scholarship opportunities that these search engines will return.

Using these types of search engines are just the start. It is possible to find scholarship opportunities in a more old-fashioned way, too. High-school guidance counselors should have access to plenty of possible scholarships. Guidance counselors, in fact, might represent the best way for students to find smaller, locally-based scholarships.

These scholarships, often offered by private companies or charitable organizations, rarely have large advertising budgets. Because of this, they can be difficult to find. However, guidance counselors will know about them, and these school professionals can help parents and their children find the right scholarship opportunities.

Incoming college freshmen might also find scholarships directly from the colleges they wish to attend. Many colleges offer scholarships. The best place to find out about them is at these colleges' financial aid offices. The professionals working in these offices can fill students in on a wide range of scholarship and aid opportunities unique to their individual colleges.

Targeting Your Search

Does your son or daughter already have a career in mind? If so, that can help you narrow down your search for a scholarship. Most professions boast a trade association. Moreover, these associations often provide scholarships to students as a way to bring talented youngsters into the professions they represent.

For instance, your local realtors association might offer a scholarship for students interested in pursuing a career in real estate. Your state's banking association might offer scholarship opportunities for students interested in working in finance.

Search out these associations, call them and ask about the scholarships they offer. Local and state associations do not always offer the most lucrative scholarships -- some provide gifts of just $500 or so. However, every little bit helps when you are trying to help your child cover the costs of a college education.

You can also uncover scholarships through good detective work. Go to your local library and scour community newspapers. These smaller newspapers often run stories highlighting local youngsters who have won scholarships. Take note of the scholarships that these students are winning and the organizations that are awarding them. You might find an organization offering a scholarship opportunity that's perfect for your son or daughter.

Applying for Scholarships

What if your children are not sports stars? What if they've never racked up straight-As? Don't despair. There are plenty of scholarships out there for a wide range of students.

The truth is organizations award scholarships based a wide set of criteria. Some organizations award scholarships based on a student's community involvement. Students who volunteer at local nursing homes, food banks or homeless shelters have a good chance of qualifying for these scholarships even if they do not have a perfect academic record.

Other organizations award scholarships based on religious affiliation or ethnicity.

Moreover, the organizations passing out these scholarships vary widely, too. Businesses, colleges, churches, civic groups and professional organizations all give out scholarship dollars.

Applying for these scholarships can take time and creativity. Many organizations will focus mainly on the student's grade point average or extracurricular activities. Others, though, will require students to write essays, provide a resume listing their activities or provide recommendations from influential members of the community.

Avoiding Scams

Unfortunately, not every organization offering scholarship money is legit. Scammers have found new college students and their parents to be tempting targets for cons.

Scam artists might entice parents and students with a lucrative scholarship offer. All these parents and students have to do first is send an application fee -- sometimes hefty -- to them to start the process.

What happens next? The organization behind the scholarship disappears, along with that application fee. Other scammers use the lure of scholarship money to harvest students' and parents' personal identification, the first step to identity theft.

Here's a rule of thumb: Never apply for a scholarship that requires you to come up with an application, processing or redemption fee. Legitimate scholarship opportunities do not require students to pay for their awards.

Students and parents should be wary, too, of organizations that suddenly contact them with scholarship offers. Most legitimate organizations offering scholarships do not have to search out students. The students come looking for them. If you suddenly receive a call or email message that seems too good to be true, the odds are you are being targeted by a scammer.

The world of scholarships can be a daunting one for students and parents new to it. However, with a bit of research and much patience, parents and their children can often dramatically reduce the amount of student loans their income college freshmen will need. That is something that will benefit children long after they graduate.

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