The world of financial aid is complex, with many new terms to understand, procedures to complete, and deadlines to keep track of. It can feel overwhelming, but it can be decoded and mastered. Ask questions, do research, find out your options, and get advising. Be proactive. If you wait until just before something is due, problems can arise that may restrict your options.
Grants are money you don't have to pay back (such as Cal Grants, Pell Grants, Chafee Grants, scholarships, stipends, and prizes). Loans (like a Stafford Loan or a Parent PLUS Loan) are money that you have to pay back eventually, along with interest.
For unsubsidized loans, interest begins accruing while you're in school; for subsidized loans, interest is delayed until after graduation. Neither loan type has to be repaid until after you graduate.
They're a lot easier to get than you might expect, and not all are awarded solely on academics. It just requires that you make time to research, apply, and follow-through. Do a search on Google or finaid.org, ask your academic or major adviser what scholarships they know of, and see what's offered in your home community. It takes time, but many students can build up several thousand dollars in scholarships by being persistent.
Programs like AB540.com, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and College Track offer scholarships for AB540 students.
If you attended a California high school for three or more years, you can submit an affidavit each semester through the Office of the Registrar to allow you to have the non-resident portion of your tuition waived.
Make a monthly budget for yourself and stick to it. Although there are resources to help you pay for your education, you have to be your own advocate. Learn the language and expectations of billing and financial aid. Avoid signing up for credit card offers, because it's easy to end up in long-term debt. Pay bills on time, buy used books, use public transit, and seek out student discounts.