6 Steps to College Financial Aid Through a FAFSA Application

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Even as the price of college tuition rises significantly, Americans still believe the path to success in life is through the ivy-covered walls of U.S. colleges and universities.

According to Sallie Mae, 83% of U.S. families say a college degree is an "investment in the future." Another 69% say college is the "path to earning more money" in life.

But Sallie Mae also says 69% of American families eliminated the college of their choice because of the high cost, the highest percentage in five years.

One way to increase your odds of getting enough money to attend your school of choice is through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

"The FAFSA is the key to unlocking the financial aid that's so important to students and families," says Joe DePaulo, executive vice president of Sallie Mae.

The FAFSA application is used to calculate eligibility for federal collegiate financial aid, including grants and loans, and aid from states and colleges and universities -- a critical first step in Sallie Mae's "one-two-three" approach to properly researching all possible forms of college financial aid. (Go to FAFSA.org for more detailed information on how FAFSA works.)

Jan. 1 is the kickoff date for completing the form, and Sallie Mae has a few tips for students and families to maximize the opportunity:

You'll need to fill out your FAFSA form to find out how much college financial aid you qualify for. To do that right, Sallie Mae advises three key steps:

Gather necessary information. Collect the documents with the information you'll need to complete the application, such as student and parent driver's licenses, the latest federal income tax returns, W-2 forms, bank statements, investment information and Social Security numbers.

Know your state's deadline. Deadlines vary by state, with the earliest being Feb. 15 in Connecticut, followed quickly by California, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland and Michigan in early March. State deadlines are available on the FAFSA website. In addition, check your school's deadlines and additional financial aid application requirements.

Don't let income tax filings slow you down. The FAFSA requires students and parents to use 2012 tax information, but don't panic -- families can use their 2011 taxes or another best estimate to get started. Once 2012 taxes have been filed, families can update the form.