The sticker-shock of college can be daunting, but with planning and some research there is financial aid out there for the taking.
To get the process started families must fill out the Free Application for Student Aid , better known as the FAFSA.
The FAFSA is roughly 156 questions and looks at a family's financial situation.
Colleges nationwide use the FAFSA to determine the amount of financial aid to award to students,
The form can now be filled out online but college planning expert Ron Caruthers also recommends printing a paper copy for reference because it contains more guidance.
“It’s my bread and butter because so many families really make mistakes and don’t understand the process," said Caruthers. "I’ve worked for 25+ years helping families pick schools that have money, not make mistakes on the FAFSA and save a ton of money on college.”
Families can start submitting FAFSA’s October 1 and the deadline is March 2.
Caruthers recommends doing so by January.
He says a major mistake families make is listing assets they're not required to, including their home, IRA's, and personal property.
What you should list: cash, stocks and bonds that aren't in a retirement account, and equity in a rental home.
“This is an area of enormous stress because, for a lot of families, next to their house this is going to be their biggest investment, and it's going to come in a very short period of time, unlike a house they can pay off over 30 years,” said Caruthers.
He says it's important to be detail-oriented on the FAFSA, for example, making sure you put income in the right line. Also, when inputting your student's name, make sure it's the exact name listed on their social security card and not a nickname.
“With a little bit of education they’re going to know more than some guidance counselors in the county," said Caruthers.
If a family's financial circumstance changes, they can appeal the FAFSA decision.
Such a circumstance might be losing a job, divorce, or medical bills.
"We've seen cases where clients have gotten $5,000, $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 more free money a year, simply by approaching the financial aid office and explaining the situation."
He says the number one mistake is not applying at all.
Caruthers offers free workshops around the county for families.
Click here for important FAFSA forms, Cal Grant information, and Pell Grant information.
The U.S. Department of Education also
answers frequently asked questions
on its website.