The bad news is, college costs are on the rise.

The good news is, more than $90 billion is available in financial aid, and Jan. 1 was the first day to apply for it.

Laying hands on this money, however, can be difficult. Filling out the daunting free application for federal student aid, or FAFSA, can be confusing and difficult, causing some students and parents to throw their hands up before they've even begun.

"Let's just say it's right up there with periodontal care," said Heather O'Brophy, mother of Bret Harte High School senior Shawn Brophy.

Along with scads of money comes scads of advice. Financial aid workshops are being held at area high schools, and the Internet offers a wealth of information about paying for college.

Sonora High School will hold a workshop at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 13 in the school library. Lynn Fox, director of financial aid at University of the Pacific, will head the discussion.

Summerville High School will hold its own workshop at 7 p.m. the next night. A financial aid officer from Columbia College will head the discussion. Both are open to the public and parents are strongly advised to come.

"It very much depends on the parents," said Sonora High School counselor Ellen Beck.

The FAFSA requires parent income, tax information and other factors.

O'Brophy said that the FAFSA isn't necessarily difficult, "it's just that there's so much of it."

If the FAFSA is filled out correctly, the information is plugged into a formula that determines the estimated family contribution. This is sent to schools chosen by the student.

If the FAFSA is not filled out correctly, it will not work. And no erasures are allowed on the hard copy.

"I've ultimately ended up with the online version," O'Brophy said, who added that the form takes between 45 minutes and an hour to complete.