If your son or daughter is going to college in the fall, you already know the cost is high -- up to $9,000 a year or $36,000 for four years at a major private college or university.

What you may not know is that there is a vast assortment of loans, grants, scholarships, work programs and stripends which can help ease the strain -- many of them available without regard to income or financial status. Low-income familes will find special help available.

The search for financial help takes time. Experts advise that you start now to make inquires and file applications for fall semester funds.

With careful planning, even familes whose income disqualifies them from scholarships based on need may be able to afford a $9,000-a-year college, says Kenneth A. Kohl, former associate U.S. commissioner of education and current dirctor of financial aid at Georgetown University.

First off, Kohl notes, the Guaranteed Student Loan Program permits students from any income bracket to borrow up to $2,500 a year for three years. Then, Kohl says, "a kid who's really willing to hustle should be able to save $1,500 over a summer and another $1,5000 working 15 hours a week at college."

That brings, the tab down to about $4,100 a year. There are ways, he says to spread those costs over eight years, bringing them within reach of most middle-income wage earners.

Kohl estimates that as much as $135 million a year in grants and scholarships, goes unclaimed because no one applies for them.

Kohl and his wife, Irene Kohl, have made a detailed study of the process of paying for college. In a recently published book, "Financing College Education," they suggest a number of optons for students:

Guaranteed Student Loans.Current law permits students to borrow $2,500 a year up to a maximum of $7,500, but amendments are pending in Congress to raise the four-year limit to $10,000. The federal supported college loan program is open to everyone.

First, you must be accepted at an accredited college, university or vocaltional institution. Then you should go to a bank or savings and loan institution and ask for a GSL application. If the bank doesn't make students loans, you may have to shop around, so start early. It makes sense to go first to the bank where you keep your own accounts. Banks tend to give prrference to their own customers.

The application will have sections to be filled out by the student, the parents and the college. Have the college return the application to you -- not the bank. This way you know the status of the application.

Repayment, with an interest rate of seven percent, begins nine months after you leave college. Federal law requires a minimum monthly payment of $30 with a maximum term of 10 years.

National Direct Student Loans. These loans are based on financial need as determined by the college financial aid officer. Students may borrow up to $5,000 during four years of college. The money comes from the federal government, is paid to the college and, in turn, loaned to the student at an interest rate of 3 percent.

Repayments begins 9 months after a student leaves college and can be spread over 10 years. Depending on the college, payments are due monthy, quarterly or semiannually. There are some circumstances under which repayments of all or part of the loan can be waived: such as, if a student becomes a teacher in a school for handicapped children or a school with a high concentation of children from low-income familes.

Basic Educational Opportunity Grants. Students from familes with gross incomes up to $25,000 a year are eligible for grants ranging from $200 to $1,600 depending on need as calculated by the U.S. Office of Education. Need is defined as the difference between what a family can reasonably be expected to pay and the costs of attending a college. Among the factors considered in determining ability to pay are income, the number of children in a family, whether more than one will be in college at the same time, assets including equity in a home and any extraordinary debts or expenses.

Application forms for such grants can be obtained from most college financial aid offices, the College Scholarship Service of the Education Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., or by writing to the Basic Grant Program, P.O. Box A, Iowa City, Iowa, 52240. Directions on where the forms should be sent are contained on the forms themselves. Deadline for submitting applications is March 15.

Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants. To qualify for these grants, which range from $200 to $1,500 a year, a student must demonstrate exceptional financial need. Generally only the very poor are eligible. The financial aid officer at your college will decide if you are eligible and for how much.

State Scholarships. The District of Columbia awards about 900 grants of between $400 and $1,500 in Student Incentive Grants to District of Columbia residents attending college in or outside the city. Awards are based on need, and appication forms are available at high schools or from college financial aid offices. Applications for grant renewal should be in by June 16 and for new grants by July 15.

Paying on the Installment Plan. Many colleges and universities permit parents to spread their payments over more than four years. Additionally, the Knight Agency in Boston and the Girard Bank in Philadelphia have set up special parents' loan programs. A parent does not have to be from Boston or Philadelphia to be eligible, but had to be a good credit risk.

For details, contract the Girard Bank's Education Loan Section, 2nd & Chestnut Sts. Philadelphia, Pa. 19106 or Knight Payment Plans, 53 Beacon St., Boston, Mass. 02108. Interest rates are 7 percent at Girard, 12 percent at Knight.Knight also administers parent payment plans for about 20 colleges, including most of the Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools. Rates on those loans range from 8 to 12 percent. a

College Work Study Program. This program is based on financial aid officer, and is usually part of an overall financial aid package. Under this program, the federal government grants money to colleges which then pay students to work for them. Generally students work no more than 15 hours a week during class periods, and are paid the minimum wage.

Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarships. These can be worth up to $33,000 over a four-year period and can be obtained from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps or the Air Force. They require four to six years active duty upon graduation. Ask college financial aid officers or military recruiters for details.

Financial Help for Women. The Business and Professional Women's Foundation at 2012 Massachusetts Ave. NW in Washington has awarded nearly $1 million in college scholarships in recent years to women over 25 who have recently become widowed or divorced or who have returned to college after a period away from school. The awards average $500.

United Negro College Fund. More than $300,000 in scholarship money is awarded each year from this fund through the financial aid offices of the Fund's 41 member colleges. St. Paul's College in Lawrenceville, Va. and Virginia Union University in Richmond are members of the Fund. The amount of each stipend varies from school to school. Additionally, the University of Maryland at College Park, in an effort to attract top minority students, grants 16 $1,000 scholarships each year to outstanding black students. In New York, the NAACP awards 10 to 12 $1,000 Roy Wilkins scholarships each year to black students. For details write Roy Wilkins Scholarships, NAACP, 1790 Broadway, N.Y., N.Y. 10090. Deadline is June 7.

The GI Bill. This is the grandfather of all federal educational assistance measures. Veterans who have served on active duty for more than 180 continuous days, part of which must have been after Jan 31, 1955 but before Jan. 1, 1977, are eligible. Ask Veterans Administration for details of available benefits.

Other aid. Particularly at colleges or universities with large endowments, scholarship aid is availabe directly from the school. Alumni associations often grant scholarships. There are many off-beat scholarships. Harvard has scholarships for students named Anderson, Borden, Downer, Haven or Murphy. The amount of the awards varies depending on need and available money ranges from $7,700 a year in the Murphy fund to $650 in the Borden. At Yale, there are $1,000 awards reserved for students named Leavenworth or DeForest.

For $45, the Scholarship Search Company, 1755 Broadway, N.Y., N.Y. 10019, will run your scholarship application through a computer and match your qualifications against the specification of an estimated 250,000 scholarships worth $500 million. These may range from the General Kosciuszko $1,000 striped for students of Polish ancestry to the Daughters of Penelope scholarship for women of Greek ancestry who agree to remain unmarried while in college.

"It's just such a wide area," said Georgetown's Kohl. "If you want the money, you've got to get on the phone and be aggressive and ferret it out."