If your son or daughter is going away 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 -- up to $3,663 a year or $14,652 for four years at the University of Maryland.

What you may not know is that there is a vast assortment of loans, grants, scholarships, work programs and stipends available to help ease the strain -- many of them without regard to income or financial status.

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

With careful planning, even families 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 director 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 $1,500 working 15 hours a week at college."

That brings the tab down to about $4,100 a year and there are ways, he says, to spread those costs over eight years, bringing them within reach of most middle income wage earners. Lower income families will find a variety of aid programs available.

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 options 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 federally supported college loan program is open to everyone.

First, you must be accepted at an accredited college, university or vocational 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 student loans, you may have to shop around, so start early. It make sense to go first to the bank where you keep your own accounts. Banks tend to give preference 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 begins nine months after you leave college with an interest rate of seven per cent. Federal law requires a minimum monthly payment of $30 with a maximum term of 10 years.

Kohl suggests it would be a good idea to get applications in by March 1 for all semester loans. There is no limit on the number of loans per family.

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 per cent.

Repayment begins 9 months after a student leaves college and can be spread over 10 years. Depending on the college, payments are due monthly, quarterly or semi annually, but there are some circumstances under which repayment 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 concentration of low income children.

Basic Educational Opportunity Grants. Students from families 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 resonably 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 Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J. or by writing to the Basic Grant Program, P.O. Box A, Iowa City, Ia., 52240. Directions on where the forms should be sent are contained on the forms themselves. Deadline for submitting applications is March 15.

Supplemental Educational 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 State of Maryland distributes about $7 million a year in state scholarships to Maryland residents. Average award is $600, and there are about 14,000 recipients. The awards are based on need as determined by the State Scholarship Board. Application forms can be obtained at high school guidance offices or college financial aid offices. They should be sent in as soon as possible.

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 to ease the burden of college costs. You don't have to be from Boston or Philadelphia to be eligible, but you do have to be a good credit risk.

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

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

Additionally, businesses and individuals in nearby communities often contact colleges looking for students to hire for part time or temporary positions. Such jobs are usually posted in the college financial aid office.

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 National 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 available 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 vary depending on need, and the 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, 1775 Broadway, N.Y., N.Y. 10019, will run your scholarship application through a computer and match your qualifications against the specifications of an estimated 250,000 scholarships worth $500 million. These may range from the General Kosciuszko $1,000 stipend 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."