The first day Kristina Ellis started high school, her mother — a widow and a hairdresser — told her daughter she didn't have the resources to pay for college.
"My mom said, 'I love you. I believe in you. But you are going to be on your own after graduation,'" Ellis told NBC News. "You have four years to start planning how you will stand out."
Ellis took her mom's words to heart, and by senior year at her Indiana high school, she had racked up $500,000 in scholarships, including ones from the Gates Foundation and Coca Cola.
With many colleges charging more than $50,000 a year just for tuition and room and board, families are feeling the crunch.
But Ellis, now 28 and author of "Confessions of a Scholarship Winner," says the money is there — you just have to look for it.
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"I never want to mislead students into thinking it's a totally easy process," she said. "It takes hard work to get a stand-out application. But if you are motivated, you can be really successful."
She says she was no "genius," but kept her grades up, embraced leadership roles and logged 1,000 hours of volunteer service.
Through a combination of local and national scholarships plus financial aid, Ellis graduated debt-free from Vanderbilt University, as well as from Belmont University in Nashville, where she got her master's degree from.
Experts say national scholarships are fiercely competitive. And while local scholarships can help pay for books and incidentals, the big money comes from the institutions themselves.
But, says Edward de Villafranca, an educational consultant for New Jersey-based Edvice Princeton, "Stay away from the Ivies," which provide generous financial aid, but offer no merit scholarships.
The good news: Many stellar schools outside the Ivy League are courting deserving students who may not qualify for financial aid with merit scholarships.
"Say you have good grades, you test well and are a good citizen, but not a recruited athlete or actress — a lot of schools have incentives for discounting your education," de Villafranca told NBC News.
Such was the case with Cathy Forinash of Seattle, whose three children received a total of $75,000 in merit scholarships from their colleges. "That's where the best money is," she told NBC News.
"We don't qualify for financial aid, but we made it a priority to send our kids to college," said Forinash, 50, who works in sales for a tech company. One of 10 children herself, she had to pay for her own degree.
"We haven't had a family vacation in a year," she said. "Every bit of money goes toward education. It's important to us."
Madeline Forinash, 25, studied educational psychology at the University of Portland in Oregon and is now at Columbia working on her Ph.D.
Caitlin Forinash, 23, renegotiated her engineering scholarship at Portland when she retook the SATs and got a higher score. Now, she is in a fully funded master's program from the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center at Oregon State University.
And Simon Forinash, 18, has been promised $20,000 to study math at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and is hoping for even more if he gets into the honors program.
Forinash said her children worked hard in high school, getting good grades. But she worked hard, too, to find the scholarships.
"I educated myself and asked a lot of questions," she said. "It's all we did from August through applications in December. I was the project manager."
College adviser de Villafranca tells students and parents to start the process early. Talk first with your guidance counselors, but don't assume they know about every program.
"Reach out to your local library and your town hall," he said. "Stay away from an organization that says, 'Hey, for $50, I'll find you a scholarship.' You can Google that yourself."
When you have your list, ask each college about what scholarships they offer. With several acceptance letters in hand, you can sometimes negotiate.
"With some diplomacy, you can "move the needle a little bit," de Villafranca said. "It's worth having the conversation."