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Financial Aid Application Season Opens

It's time for families of college students to gather their financial materials and begin the process to determine how much help they can expect this year to pay for tuition.

On January 1, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) season began for students planning to attend college in the fall. To begin, go to the free official government FAFSA site. (On Wednesday, the FAFSA site was down for six hours but it is up and running again, according to U.S. Department of Education officials.)

There is more than $150 billion in grants, loans, and work-study funds given out each year.

Although many find the process confusing, there have been efforts to streamline the process. With the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, families filling out the financial details online can tap into their tax information from the IRS to automatically populate the FAFSA form. The tool this year will be available starting in early February.

The U.S. Department of Education offers 5 Reasons You Should Complete the FAFSA on its website. Another good resource for information is the federal student aid site.

There is an incentive to fill out the FAFSA early since some schools and states give out awards on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Deadlines vary by state. On the FAFSA site, students can search for their state's deadline. Some are as early as February.

For students attending college in the fall of 2013, the FAFSA must receive applications no later than June 30.

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