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5 tricks for paying for college in 2018

Harvard University students
Michael Fein/Bloomberg | Getty Images
Harvard University students

College has a bigger financial impact on students — both in terms of cost and earning potential — than ever before.

US News and World Report estimates that over the past 20 years, the in-state cost of attending a public national university has increased by 237 percent. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, a bachelor's degree is now worth $2.8 million over a lifetime. Today, approximately 44 million Americans hold a total of $1.3 trillion in student loan debt.

Here are five ways students can help minimize the cost of attending college:

Apply for FAFSA

Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as the FAFSA, should be the first step every student takes towards financing a degree.

Every year, the U.S. Department of Education gives over $120 billion in federal grants, loans and work-study funds to more than 13 million college students, making it the largest provider of student financial aid in the country. Federal grants do not need to be repaid, federal student loans have low interest rates and work-study programs can be a convenient way to simultaneously fund an education and build a resume

"Aid is available for anyone with a household income below $250,000 a year," says Charlie Javice, founder & CEO of Frank, an online FAFSA platform. "So it's really important as FAFSA season comes up that people don't forget that there is no such thing as being too rich to file FAFSA."

"To students who don't think that FAFSA applies to them, wake up and smell the coffee. You should do it," says Javice. "It takes four minutes. You are probably going to get $10,000 to $30,000 worth of aid in your first year."

By not completing the FAFSA, NerdWallet estimates that the class of 2017 missed out on $2.3 billion worth of free college aid.

Negotiate for more

Your chance to maximize your college aid package doesn't end once you've submitted your FAFSA application.

"There is an appeal process," college admissions expert Danny Ruderman tells CNBC Make It. "Once you submit the FAFSA, be sure to submit supplements or new addendums."

The Department of Education allows families to appeal because, he says, "you can fill out the FAFSA in December, and by the time that your child is going [to college] the next fall, things can change."

Javice adds that families who have recently been affected by a natural disaster have much to gain from submitting supplements and addendums.

"To those who have been affected by Harvey and Irma, you should be negotiating your aid because of the natural disaster," she says. "You will likely be in a great position to negotiate and get free college aid because of the unfortunate events that happened."

Negotiate with your school

Once you have been accepted by a college and been offered a financial aid package, students should negotiate with the school for more assistance.

"Most students don't know that they should never, ever, ever accept their first aid package," says Javice.

She says that across the country, schools offer around $80 billion in financial aid discounts to their students, "of which, $15-20 billion is reserved for aid appeals and about half of that is usually not allocated because people don't know that they should be doing this."

Look at outside scholarships

While federal student aid and college provided aid are often the best places to start financing your college degree, there are also thousands of outside college scholarships that students can apply for.

In fact, Ben Kaplan, CEO of PR Hacker and author of "How to Go to College Almost for Free," funded his undergraduate degree at Harvard with 24 scholarships totaling $90,000.

"I won two dozen of them and accumulated $90,000 in scholarship money, which at the time, combined with a year's worth of AP credit (which basically let me enter Harvard as a sophomore) covered the entire cost of Harvard for me," he explained to CNBC Make It.

In order to maximize their winnings, Kaplan suggests that students look for scholarships in creative places, apply for many scholarships and fine-tune their applications over time.

Apply to a free program

One way to minimize your college costs is to see if you qualify for a tuition-free program. For instance, these eight colleges do not charge tuition.

There are also multiple colleges across the country that offer tuition-free programs for students who are Pell Grant eligible.

In 2017, the University of New Hampshire (UNH) announced that it would charge New Hampshire residents receiving Pell Grants absolutely no tuition.

"UNH's Granite Guarantee allows us to remove more of the financial barriers to higher education that many New Hampshire families face," said UNH President Mark Huddleston. "This new program demonstrates our strong commitment to ensuring a UNH education is affordable and accessible to New Hampshire's best and brightest."

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