If your son or daughter is going away to college in the fall, you already know the cost is high -- as much as $9,000 a year, or $36,000 for four years, at a major private university. Costs may be less at a state university, although still expensive. At the University of Virginia, for instance, expenses come to $3,341 a year.

What you may not know is that there is a vast assortment of financial help available -- from the General Kosciuscko $1,000 stipend for students of Polish ancestry to the more conventional government loans and work programs.

The search for financial help takes time, but the money is there. Experts advise that you start now to make inquiries and file applicatiions for fall-semester funds.

With careful planning, even families whose income disqualifies them from scholarships based on need should 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, Kohl notes, the Guaranteed Student Loan Program permits students from any income bracket to borrow up to $2,500 a year for three years. s"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," Kohl adds.

That brings the tab down to $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 workers. Lower-income families will find a variety of aid programs available to them.

Kohl estimates that as much as $135 million a year in grants and scholarships go 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 allows students to borrow $2,500 a year, up to a maximum of $7,500, but amendments pending in Congress would raise the four-year limit to $10,000. This federally supported college loan program is open to everyone.

To apply, you must be accepted at an accredited college, university or vocational school. Then, go to a bank or savings and loan and ask for a GSL application. If the bank doesn't make student loans, you may have to shop around, so start early.

The application will have sections to be filled out by the student, 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, at 7 percent interest, begins nine months after you leave college. Federal law requires a minimum monthly payment of $30 with a maximum term of 10 years.

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

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 a 3 percent interest rate.

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 semiannually. In some cases, part of all of the payments can be waived. For instance, students who become teachers in low-income areas can qualify for the waiver program.

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. Need, as calculated by the U.S. Office of Education, is the difference between what a family can reasonably be expected to pay and the actual cost of education. Among the factors considered in determining ability to pay are income, the number of children in a family, whether more than one child will be in college at the same time, assets (including equity in a home) and any extraordinary debts or expenses.

Application forms 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, Iowa 52240. Directions on where to send the forms are on the forms themselves. The deadline for application 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.

State Scholarships. Virginia distributes 10,000 scholarships each year, averaging $200 to $800 each, on the basis of need. Virginia residents attending public or private colleges in Virginia are eligible. Application forms are available at high schools and from college financial aid offices. Deadline is March 31.

Every Virginia resident attending a private college in the state is eligible for a $550 grant regardless of need. The state will distribute 11,500 grants this year totaling $6.1 million. Colleges have details on how to apply.

Virginia residents attending public four-year colleges in the state are eligible for $1,000 "other-race" grants if they attend a college in which they are in a racial minority, i.e. whites attending predominately black colleges and vice versa. There are 512 such grants this year, and the number will double each year for the next four years. Colleges have application details.

The Installment Plan. Many schools allow 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 parent-loan programs. 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, Education Loan Section, Second & Chestnut streets, Philadelphia 19106, or Knight Payment Plans, 53 Beacon St., Boston 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.

Work-Study Program. This program is based on financial need as determined by the college financial aid officer and is usually part of an overall financial aid package. Under this program, the federal government gives money to colleges so they may 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.

Businesses and individuals in nearby communities often have part-time or temporary work for students. Such jobs are usually posted in the college financial aid office.

Reserve Officer Training Corps Scholarships. These can be worth as much as $33,000 over four years and can be obtained from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps or Air Force. They require four to six years of active duty upon graduation. Ask college financial 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 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 scholarships is awarded each year 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. The amount of each stipend varies from school to school. Additionally, the University of Maryland at College Park 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 been 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.

Other Aid.Particularly at schools with large endowments, financial aid is available directly from the school. Alumni associations often grant scholarships, and there are many offbeat scholarships. Harvard, for example, has scholarships for students whose family names are Anderson, Borden, Downer, Haven or Murphy. The amounts vary depending on need, and the available money ranges from $7,700 a year in the Murphy fund to $650 in the Borden.

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 stipened to the Daughters of Penelope scholarship for women of Greek ancestry who agree to remain unmarried while in college.