After years of rising tuition and pressure on household budgets, a record number of students across California are applying for college financial aid.

Over the last six school years, the number of California residents filing the federal financial aid application jumped nearly 74 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some local colleges saw even higher increases, such as an 81 percent rise among Sacramento State applicants.

It's the latest sign that college families have grown akin to mall shoppers when it comes to price: fewer and fewer expect to pay sticker price.

While tuition soared at California State University and University of California campuses during the recession, schools simultaneously provided more grants and scholarships to blunt the impact. The state also continued providing Cal Grants to cover rising costs for lower-income families.

The percentage of UC and Cal State freshmen receiving financial aid increased from 57 percent in 2006-07 to 72 percent in 2011-12, according to federal data.

"California did a better job than many states in having our state financial aid programs keep pace with the tuition increases," said Judy Heiman, who tracks financial aid at the Legislative Analyst's Office.

To receive the financial aid, eligible students have to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA collects data on family income and assets to help colleges determine how much aid students qualify for. Education counselors are encouraging as many families as possible to submit the application form by the March 2 deadline not only to ensure that they can access long-standing aid programs, but also because the state has devoted $107 million toward a new "middle-class scholarship" for households earning up to $150,000.

"More people should apply because more students potentially are going to be eligible this year than in the past," said Monica Roberts, director of the Cal-SOAP Consortium, one of more than a dozen organizations around the state that hold "Cash for College" workshops to provide FAFSA filing help.

At one such event this month at Del Campo High School, 17-year-old Sabrina King and her mother, Catherine "Trina" Dangberg King, joined about 80 other students and family members seeking guidance. Dangberg King said she's not sure how much her family will have to spend, how much it will have to borrow and how many grants and scholarships will be available.

Sabrina King said she has been accepted to California Poly San Luis Obispo and plans to major in chemistry for a career in pharmaceutical science and research. She watched her grandfather deteriorate with Parkinson's disease, she said.

"I told her we will work it out, one way or another," Dangberg King said. "I didn't go to college. I want her to do what I didn't."

A growing need

The FAFSA asks applicants for a host of details, including income, assets and family size. That data is used to calculate how much a family is expected to contribute out-of-pocket and passed on to campuses to determine eligibility for federal, state and campus aid. In the 2012-13 academic year, 2.65 million graduate and undergraduate students based in California filed FAFSA applications, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Starting last year, California began offering a similar Dream Act application for undocumented students who attended California high schools. State leaders in 2011 enacted legislation giving such students access to financial aid.

"Part of it is the economy," said Heiman. "With higher unemployment, more families qualify for financial aid. And certainly higher tuition helps kick some families into the category of having financial need."

Despite the price increases, Heiman's office observed in a report last week that California's tuition and fees remain "relatively low" while living costs tend to be higher than the national average.

Expanding eligibility

More of the tuition hikes fell on affluent families that qualified for little or no aid, while schools tried to protect low- and middle-class households. "Financial aid programs help offset a large proportion of costs for many low- and middle-income families in the state," the LAO report stated.

Universities have expanded the eligible population by providing aid to families earning higher incomes. UC institutions provide scholarships and grants to cover tuition and fees for students whose families earn $80,000 or less.

UC Davis in 2013 created its own Aggie Grant Plan to undergraduates whose families earn from $80,000 to $120,000. Starting last school year, UC Berkeley extended financial aid to families earning up to $140,000.

In some cases, students rely on additional aid for living costs. For instance, Cal State tries to use Cal Grants to cover tuition and fees where possible, leaving federal Pell Grants to help pay for housing and food, Heiman said.

Aid packages typically include several layers of financial help. Grants and scholarships require no repayment. Schools may ask students to find a campus job to take advantage of federal work-study funding. To bridge any further gap, students and their parents may have to take out federal or private loans.

After California voters approved tax hikes in 2012 and state coffers benefited from capital gains growth, tuition has remained flat for two school years at UC and Cal State. Gov. Jerry Brown has asked the systems to keep tuition flat for a third straight year.

A new plan in place

The percentage of California university students receiving financial aid should climb higher under the "Middle Class Scholarship" approved last year by state leaders. The plan, initiated by Assembly Speaker John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles, aids families earning up to $150,000 with children attending UC or Cal State. The state is phasing in the scholarship program over the next three school years.

Given that most families qualify for some level of financial aid, high school counselors and California Student Aid Commission officials are trying to ensure families file their FAFSAs this month.

The Cal-SOAP Consortium, a program of the Sacramento County Office of Education and CSAC, is planning another half-dozen "Cash for College" workshops through Feb. 25. All told, organizations statewide hold about 800 "Cash for College" workshops.

And individual schools are getting into the act. At Laguna Creek High, for example, prizes from tickets to the senior ball and a free yearbook are planned for filling out FAFSAs, said Alycia Sato, one of two head counselors at Laguna Creek High School in Elk Grove.

"We are really trying to get them to do it," Sato said. "Because if they don't, they miss out on so much."