With the average annual state university tuition at nearly $10K and private colleges charging up to $78K per year, learning the ins and outs of the FAFSA (Federal Application for Student Aid) form is a must for college applicants and parents.

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Credit: Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.

As the end of the school year nears and seniors gear up for graduation ceremonies (some of which may actually be in-person again?!), juniors are getting ready for their senior year—and many, if not most, are preparing to apply for college. But with the college search comes plenty of concerns—chiefly, how do you fund that post-secondary education when faced with skyrocketing tuition prices nationwide? After all, with the average cost of one year at an in-state public university ringing in at $9,687 these days, and the cost of one year at a private college hitting up to $78,000, you need a solid plan. But you don't need to fret—at least not yet. There are numerous ways to pay for college, as long as you start strong by filling out your FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

What is the FAFSA?

The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a form completed by current and prospective college students to determine eligibility for state and federal funding. The FAFSA is, as the name implies, free. It doesn't cost anything to file this application, and it will make you eligible for billions of dollars in aid—including grants, work-study programs, and low-interest loans. The FAFSA currently helps millions pay for college—13 million, to be exact. That said, it's important to note that the FAFSA has to be filed annually. You need to submit a new FAFSA before each academic year in order to be eligible for (and receive) aid.

Should you fill it out?

The short answer is yes: If you or your child plans to go to college in the next academic year, you should fill out the FAFSA. Why? Because each year, billions of dollars in federal aid is available—but if you don't file, you won't qualify. And because the FAFSA is more than just low-income aid; completing this form will give any applicant potential access to work-study programs, low-interest loans, and even some scholarships that actually require the FAFSA (including those awarded by educational institutions themselves).

When can you file?

Students can file their FAFSAs starting October 1 and can use their tax information and/or their parents' tax information from the previous year to determine their eligibility.

What information do you need?

Completing the FAFSA form is (admittedly) a bit of an arduous process. You need a lot of information to file the form, and you'll need to have several documents on hand, including annual tax returns, financial statements, and W-2s. Here's a complete list of everything you'll need:

For parents and caregivers:

  • Social Security number
  • Driver’s license
  • Prior year W-2
  • Prior year tax return
  • Prior year untaxed income records, if applicable
  • Current business and investment records
  • Current bank statement(s)

For the student:

  • Social Security number
  • Driver’s license
  • Prior year W-2
  • Prior year tax return
  • Prior year untaxed income records, if applicable
  • Current bank statement(s) and any investments, if applicable
  • List of the schools the student is attending and/or is interested in attending

According to Federal Student Aid (FSA) a website overseen by the U.S. Department of Education, you'll also need a FSA ID for you and your student. If you do not yet have your FSA and/or you forgot your username or password, visit the Federal Student Aid website.

Where can the FAFSA form be found?

Once you've compiled your documents and created an FSA, you'll want to file your application. After all, awards are given on a first-come, first-served basis. The earlier you apply, the more financial aid you'll receive. But how do you file the FAFSA? Where do you go? There are actually three ways to complete and submit your financial aid forms:

What type of aid can the FAFSA help you acquire?

Completing the FAFSA is the best college move you can make—for you and your student. After all, it opens the door to billions of available dollars in state and federal funding. In addition to the aforementioned grants, work-study programs, scholarships, and low-interest loans, special aid may also be available for your unique circumstances—such as, for example, specific financial awards and benefits for military families and/or international students.