As costs continue to rise, planning how to finance a four-year degree has become a more prominent part of the college application process.

Getting an early start—especially when it comes to decoding financial aid options—can help you in your search.

Follow these steps to get a clearer picture of college costs.

Know the Net Price
Serious about a particular college or university? Go beyond the “sticker price” to estimate your true cost of attendance.

Net price calculators—available on a college’s website—can help prospective students get a better handle on what they will be expected to pay, said Marvin Smith, director of student financial services at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis. By entering information about yourself and your family’s financial situation, you can learn what students similar to you paid to attend the institution in the previous year.

“A net price calculator allows students and their families to determine not only what type of costs they may incur, but also the types of aid they might qualify for,” Smith said. “The earlier you have the information, the better you’re able to plan.”

File Your FAFSA
Every year, the federal government awards roughly $150 billion to college students through need-based grants, loans, and work-study funds.
Make sure you’re in the running.

Submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as soon as possible after Oct. 1 of your senior year. In addition to determining your eligibility for federal funds, many colleges and states use the form when distributing grants, so don’t delay. In some instances, money is limited. If you file your application late, you run the risk of finding out that certain funds—such as work-study awards—are already gone.

“Students need to watch deadlines,” Smith said. “Admission and financial aid deadlines can differ, so students need to be organized.”

Be Smart About Scholarships
Do you like to sing? Are you considering a career in an in-demand field? Do you have pride in your cultural heritage?

Thousands of scholarships exist, and the money most often goes to those students who are motivated to seek it out.

“When you’re completing the FAFSA, you can also be applying for outside scholarships—and you should,” said Judith Lewis Logue, director of financial aid at the University of San Diego (CA).

Search the web for scholarships aligned with your academic achievements, special interests, and college goals. Sites like add new scholarships on a daily basis.

Keep your resume updated, apply for as many awards as possible, and remember—no one should charge you for scholarship information.

“Never, ever pay money to apply to an outside scholarship,” Lewis Logue said. “That is a scam.”

Take Steps to Minimize Debt
The majority of students use loans to help finance their college education.

But remember: Just because you’re offered a loan doesn’t mean you have to take it. In many cases, the financial aid package you receive from a college will include more loans than you may need to cover the cost of your education.
If you use good money management skills, you may be able to borrow less.

No matter how favorable the terms are, it’s always cheaper to not borrow in the first place, Lewis Logue said.

“Do not borrow any more than you absolutely need,” she said. “You want to keep your borrowing to a minimum.”

In addition to seeking outside scholarships, Lewis Logue encourages students to find a part-time job. Working even a few hours a week during college can help limit your debt.

“Every little bit counts,” she said.