If the cost of your child's college education is going to play a significant role in where they will be able to enroll, it is never too early to start researching opportunities to minimize the financial burden. I am not a financial advisor and am not speaking here about 529 plans, but rather the abundance of scholarship opportunities out there that take time to identify, understand and apply for consideration.
When you are getting ready to apply to college, you will fill out a FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to be considered for federal grants, loans, work-study opportunities. Waiting until October 1 (the date the FAFSA becomes available for the next school year) of your senior year of high school is too late to begin exploring how to finance your college education. Plus, you want to maximize your chances of paying for college with awards that you do not have to pay back (grants, scholarships, fellowships) rather than loans.
You can begin your scholarship research at any time so you know what your options are when you are ready to begin applying to college.
Where do you begin?
School specific scholarships - if you already know which schools you are considering, research the scholarship opportunities through the financial aid section of the school website. Some schools will automatically consider applicants for scholarships, while others require separate applications. Pay attention to whether the scholarship opportunities have deadlines that are different from the college application deadlines. These scholarships will be listed on the school's website, like here:
State financial aid programs - find out what opportunities exist in your state. For example, the Ohio Department of Higher Education provides links to scholarship and grant opportunities, as well as a scholarship search engine through Ohio Means Jobs.
Local community -
The Columbus Foundation has a scholarship directory, for example. Also check any local community organizations. The Bexley Women's Club offers $1,500 scholarships to selected graduating seniors each year.
Scholarship search engines
You can also find school specific scholarships in search engines like this one through CollegeXpress. In this scholarship search engine, you can search by institution to see scholarships offered at a particular school, but you can also search for keywords like "dance" or "biology" or "engineering," for example.
CollegeScholarships.com - search by state, by major, heritage, religion
CollegeScholarships.org - find scholarships, grants, loans
Broke Scholar - lets you search by gender, study area, and ethnicity, although these search parameters are not required
College Board, the organization that delivers the SAT, rewards students as they take steps towards a college education through their Opportunity Scholarships.
CollegeBoard Big Future offers a comprehensive scholarship search tool.
FastWeb is a free scholarship search tool, although they will share your info with other vendors.
Scholarship Owl is a platform that will automate the scholarship application process for you after matching your profile with potential awards. NOTE: there is a fee to do this after an initial free trial of exploring their site. This fee is not to research scholarships, but to use their premium service to help apply for multiple scholarships at once. You should never have to pay a fee to search for scholarships - here is a helpful blog on how to assess whether a site is a good one: https://scholarshipowl.com/blog/find-scholarships/scholarship_scams/
This may seem obvious, but enter specific search criteria into google to see what comes up - "scholarships for students in Ohio"
"scholarships for women in engineering"
"scholarships to study theatre"
"scholarships to study sustainability"
"scholarships for public policy"
The list is endless, but try some targeted searches to see what you might find.
This process takes a lot of time, so begin now. There is a lot of content out there, so at times you may feel like you are searching for a needle in a haystack, but it is worth it to take the time so you aren't leaving money on the table. Start to identify potential opportunities and keep a spreadsheet of options along with requirements and application deadlines so you have it when it is time to apply.