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Q. "My daughter is a senior in high school and plans on attending college next fall. I’m trying to help with her financing, but really don’t know where to start. I’ve heard there are some decent government loan and financial aid programs. Can you recommend a good one for us?" - R.N., Wheeling, West Virginia

A. You can never get going on your college funding campaign soon enough.

A good place to start is with the FAFSA form, the government's Free Application For Federal Student Aid.

FAFSA will determine the eligibility of your college student for financial aid, usually in the form of grants, college loans, and work-study programs. But the FAFSA form isn’t only used by Uncle Sam – states and universities also use the FAFSA to dish out non-federal financial aid.

FAFSA has become easier to complete lately thanks to a federal government overhaul that was completed earlier this year. In a word, the application asks you to answer questions about your family’s personal finances, which the government uses to determine your EFC – Expected Family Contribution.

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There are myriad factors involved in such a calculation, however. For example, do both you and your spouse (or ex-spouse) work full-time? Do you have another child already in college? How much have you already saved for college in a 529 plan?

Timing matters when it comes to completing the form - the website urges parents to fill out the application package by Jan. 2011, even though the federal government’s official deadline is June 30, 2011. Note also that state deadlines vary. Your state, West Virginia, has an April 15 deadline.

Uncle Sam also urges FAFSA applicants to complete income tax returns prior to completing the FAFSA form, though it’s not mandatory. But any advantage you can get is worth going for, so fill out the form online and deliver it via the FAFSA web site for quickest results. FAFSA administrators say that many applications are delayed or rejected because of the illegible handwriting on paper applications.

One  more thing: Your note doesn’t indicate it, but if you have an unusual situation, such as the death of a parent, a divorce, or unemployment, complete the form and note that, but also contact the school’s financial aid office directly and let them know your circumstances. In short, if there is anything that might affect your child’s financial aid, make sure the right people know about it.

While speed is important, accuracy and thoroughness is vital, too. Start early, fill out everything, and get it in before the end of January. That might be your best chance of getting the financial aid your child deserves, and more importantly, needs.

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