Alfredo “Freddy” Burciaga, director of financial education for College in Colorado, offers help to parents trying to figure out how the heck to pay for their child’s college education.

Q. The day we’ve waited for since our daughter was born has arrived. She has just been accepted to a college that she absolutely loves! Now, reality is sinking in. How are we going to pay for this? How do people pay for college?

A. Congratulations! Pursuing education after high school is a proven route to a rewarding career. Relax, you can do this. Thousands of students and parents navigate the path to financial aid every year. You will too.Photo illustration of piggy bank

Your first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It is a U.S. government form found online at www.fafsa.gov. You will be asked for a lot of information. Some of it is personal, including questions about your family finances. Everything is kept confidential. You will need a copy of your most recent IRS tax return.

It is important to be honest. Everything you enter is subject to verification. Don’t risk award delays by entering incorrect information.

The FAFSA is a “smart application.” It will guide you. Devote your attention to the process, read along step by step, and you should have no problems. Beware of companies that want to charge you to fill out this form. There is no need to pay someone to do something this easy. Remember, the first word in FAFSA is “free.”

FAFSA reports determine a base amount your family should be able to contribute, that’s called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). You use the online tools to share your completed FAFSA with the college your daughter plans to attend, and financial aid counselors at that school will put together a financial award package.

Get to know financial aid counselor

Get to know your school’s financial aid counselor. Financial aid counselor relationships can be just as important as the relationship your daughter will build with her academic counselor.

Financial aid comes in many forms. For starters, based on need, there are federal grants available, and the FAFSA will help your daughter’s college tap into those grants for her. One popular grant is the need-based federal Pell Grant. This is money that never needs to be repaid.

There are also student loans available, many with reasonable interest rates and potential tax benefits. Repayment can be delayed until after your daughter graduates, but check with your financial aid counselor about what types of loans your daughter may qualify for and how interest will accrue.

Your daughter’s university may also have its own need- and achievement-based scholarships. Ask about them. This is a great way to defray the cost of college.

And then there is Work-Study. Work-Study offers part-time campus jobs your daughter may be eligible for. The advantage of a Work-Study job is that the hours can be tailored to her academic schedule. It will help her earn money that can be used to pay for college.

After the financial aid office has reviewed your FAFSA and your situation, it will develop a financial aid award package that may include a mix of available assistance. That award notification is generally sent to you in the mail.

Don’t forget about private scholarships

But that’s not all. Don’t forget private scholarships. There are many. Ask about scholarships that may be offered by your employer, your church, local businesses, foundations, community organizations and clubs. Ask your financial aid counselor and your school guidance counselor for ideas.

You can search the Internet and free scholarship search engines, such as a very active one at College in Colorado. Apply for as many scholarships as you can, it’s free money. Even if you aren’t sure if you are fully qualified, apply. It is work, but it’s worth it. Make applying a hobby in the months ahead!

True, not every financial situation will work out for every school. But in many cases, you will find that by using all the free tools available, you can put together a financial package that makes sense for your family.

College In Colorado is a federally funded state agency that helps Colorado students and families plan, apply and pay for college. There is a complete section on financial aid that can walk you through more financial aid opportunities at www.collegeincolorado.org.