An important window will soon open for Indiana college-bound students who need help paying for tuition.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, determines how much financial aid schools can award based on a family's financial situation.
The application can be filed starting Jan. 1.
Laurie Wolfe, a board member of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, says preparing now can make the process less stressful.
"Now that we're at Christmas time, that's a good time to sit down with the family and start talking about, 'What do we need to be looking at?'" she says. "I highly encourage people to get hold of a copy of that application now, look through it, pull together the documents that you need."
The list of documents includes income tax returns and investment statements.
The application deadline is June 30, but to avoid missing any deadlines for special scholarship programs, Wolfe recommends completion before Feb. 15.
Federal aid is based on need and offered through grants and loans.
Wolfe says families need to understand the difference, and look at ways to reduce costs before students begin college.
"Our fear is that students will not think about what happens down the road, when they graduate and they're 20, 25, $30,000 in debt," she says. "And they have to pay that back and, at the same time, they're trying to buy a new car, get a new house, maybe relocate."
While in high school, Wolfe says students should consider volunteer opportunities that can be helpful experience in getting a scholarship, or high school courses that can be counted for college credit.
Wolfe says another option to bring down the cost of college is to complete general education courses at a two-year school before heading to a four-year institution.
"Community college runs about anywhere between $110 and $160 a credit hour, which is far less than what it would cost at the four-year publics or the four-year privates," she says. "So, that's one thing to look at."
For Indiana residents, Wolfe says annual student tuition and fees average about $3,000 at a community college, $8,000 for public universities and $30,000- for private colleges.