The class of 2014 is in the home stretch of the high school experience, but many college-bound seniors are likely buried in piles of financial aid applications as they search for help in paying for the next four years of education.

"It's kind of like crunch time right now," said Beverly Fuller, counselor at Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa.

"Definitely. Financial aid deadlines are looming," said Susan Gutierrez, director of financial aid for Sonoma State University.

And with college costs on the rise, getting a plan in place for how to pay for it is crucial, local school counselors said.

The average cost for a year at a public, in-state four-year college is more than $18,000, according to the College Board, the New York-based association that administers Advanced Placement curriculum and exams as well as the SAT.

A year at an out-of-state public school is upward of $31,000, while a year at a private university averages between $31,000 and $40,000 a year.

A key element to securing financial aid is completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance, or FAFSA, a financial form used to determine a student's financial aid need. The priority deadline for California's college-bound students is March 2.

The FAFSA requires disclosure of a family's income and assets and takes into consideration how many other students in a family are in college.

The College Board Profile application is an online application that collects information used by nearly 400 colleges and scholarship programs. Though there are multiple deadlines, the last day to submit that form is Feb. 15.

"The sooner you get your FAFSA and Profile submitted, the sooner you get your student aid report," Fuller said.

"It's a lot to understand and for families to think about — what is affordable, not just for one year but for four or five years," Gutierrez said.

After the intensity of admission applications, the financial aid push can bring a different kind of anxiety, high school counselors in Sonoma County said.

"Financial aid is a huge component," said Lisa Conner, college and career counselor at Sonoma Valley High School.

Conner encouraged families to have conversations earlier in students' high school careers about the cost of college and what families can bear, so that both parents and students are on the same page about which colleges are realistic options.

Grants, loans and scholarships require students to fill out forms and write essays, but the effort is worth it, even for seniors "weary" of the whole process, Fuller said.

"There are community scholarships," she said. "I always tell students, it's just like unclaimed money."

Conner recommended parents check with their employers for company-sponsored scholarships.

And next month it starts again, but with the class of 2015, Conner said.

"In March I start working with my juniors," she said.