David Slade is a senior Post and Courier reporter. His work has been honored nationally by Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Scripps foundation and others. Reach him at 843-937-5552 or dslade@postandcourier.com

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The time is now to start tackling an important financial aid form for college-bound students. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

If you're a student planning to attend college next fall, or the parent of one, October means it's time to fill out the federal student aid form and continue planning for the high costs ahead.

Here are some tips about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — the FAFSA — and paying for college.

The FAFSA may not be the only financial aid form a student will need to fill out, particularly if they plan to attend a private institution, but it is the form used to determine many forms of federal, state and institutional aid. That includes grants, loans to students or parents, and work-study programs.

Don't delay. While the federal deadline for the FAFSA is a long way off, at the end of June, South Carolina residents should complete the FAFSA "as soon as possible after Oct. 1, 2019" according to the U.S. Department of Education's Federal Student Aid office.

That's because S.C. Commission on Higher Education need-based grants are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis until the money runs out. Completing the FAFSA early can also increase the chances of scoring institutional grants.

The FAFSA determines a student or family's ability to pay for higher education by looking at assets and what's called prior-prior-year tax returns. That means the form for fall 2020 admissions will use federal tax returns filed in 2019, which were for the 2018 tax year.

Likewise, a student or family's income this year will determine financial aid for the 2021-22 school year. Prior years are used so that tax information can be directly downloaded from the IRS while filling out the FAFSA.

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Note that the IRS data retrieval tool is scheduled to be unavailable from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. For online information about federal student aid and access to the FAFSA visit studentaid.ed.gov

As important as the FAFSA is, it's just one part of what should be a detailed look at how to pay for college. Student aid may include grants, but typically it involves loans — loans that can result in crushing debt loads for college graduates if they aren't careful.

Personally, I don't consider most student loans "financial aid" any more than I would consider a car loan or a home mortgage to be financial aid. It's interest-bearing debt, but it's often as necessary for paying college tuition as a mortgage loan is necessary for buying a house.

So, it's crucially important to evaluate not only the aid available — which can vary greatly from one institution to another, as a combination of government and institutional aid — but what form that aid will take and what rules are attached. For example, if aid can vanish if a student's grade point average dips too low, that's important to know and convey to the beneficiary.

Federal loans can be subsidized, or unsubsidized, with some being interest-free while the student is in school. Loans can be made directly to students, or to their parents.

Shopping for a college or university with the best combination of quality education, price and student aid package is a key part of the puzzle. It may turn out that a private school costs less than a state-run institution when all is said and done because of very generous grant programs.

Searching for the right college and figuring out how to pay for it is complex. It's easy to get lost in the details and the red tape. Getting started on the FAFSA as early as possible is one step that can help.

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.