This week's column is the first of two parts.

Applying for student loans is nearly as intimidating as applying for a mortgage. Here's how to avoid a stumble:

Calculate what you need: Contact the college's financial aid office or look online to determine costs. "Borrow as little as possible," says Leslie Tayne, a Melville attorney specializing in financial issues.

Get started ASAP: Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which determines eligibility for federal loans and grants. Get help from your child's guidance counselor or at studentaid.ed.gov/fafsa.

Watch deadlines: Federal, state and the college's financial aid deadlines may be different.

Don't pass up free money: Explore the New York State Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) to see if you qualify.

Beware: Tayne prefers student loans be in the student's name. "Paying back loans helps their credit, and the repayment default options are more favorable for student loans compared to parent loans." She also isn't big on parents co-signing.

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If parents borrow, consider a federal PLUS loan, which carries a favorable interest rate. But it can't be transferred to the child after graduation. "This is the parent's responsibility to pay," says Evan Branfman, an adviser with Kuttin-Metis Wealth Management in Melville.

And much as grandparents want to help, co-signing is ill advised. Warns Kevin Worthley, of Wealth Management Resources in Rhode Island, "If the student defaults, the grandparent's Social Security income can be accessed for payments."