Free at last. Almost, anyway.

For the first time in 10 years, I won’t be filling out the online college aid form known as the FAFSA, the Free Application For Student Aid.

Over the past decade, my family has religiously filled out this federal form, an exercise in revealing our income, assets and debts. To satisfy other requirements, I have provided colleges with our income tax forms and tried to estimate the value of our single-family home.

In exchange, my daughters became eligible for aid from three private colleges. That aid and the scholarships they won made a huge difference in paying for college.

Two daughters already have graduated and one is preparing to do so this June. Here is what all those years of college trips and FAFSA filings have taught me:

  • Newspaper reporters look poor on paper. Is that an illusion or what?
  • Putting money aside for your children in a regular savings or investment account for minors is a bad idea. While the college formulas can be hard to scrutinize, the experts seem to be correct on this point. Colleges demand that students contribute a higher percentage of their assets than they require of the parents’ assets. The solution? The special college savings programs (such as the 529 plans) are assessed at the parents’ contribution rate.
  • Plan your family so your children are close in age and two of them will be in college at the same time. Okay, I didn’t plan it that way, and you probably won’t either. But our overall costs really were lower because I had two children going to college in the same years.
  • Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes in high school really can help earn college credit. Science majors don’t catch as big a break, but even they get can get some benefit. And some students will be able to graduate earlier from those extra credits.
  • Your children may earn so much in scholarships that they actually fail to qualify for federal work study jobs. This is the least of your problems. Have them seek those scholarships anyway.
  • The federal tax credits for college really can benefit the parents. You can receive a credit of up to $2,500 for the first four years and up to $2,000 for any following years. If you plan your tuition payments right, you even may be able to qualify for five years of credits for your student’s four academic years of college.
  • Don’t be too quick to conclude that your child has to go to a public state school because you can’t afford that private college. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could help your child pick the school that’s the best fit for him or her, without having to worry about the money? Of note, families where both parents have higher-paying salaries may find the widest gulf between the prices of these two types of schools. They are likely to qualify for the smallest grants, if any, from the private schools. Here is where it’s handy to be a newspaper reporter. It also depends on how big the college’s endowment is. For those families of modest income, the Ivy League school can end up costing no more than the public state university.
  • When your child calls you from college and says everything is going okay, you can’t help but breathe a huge sigh of relief. When they graduate, you can take comfort in having helped them receive an incredible gift — the chance to go off to college, study, mature and pursue the next chapter in their lives. You can’t put a price tag on that.

In the meantime, I am one payment away from having some disposable income.