published Saturday, June 27th, 2009

Financial aid pitfalls

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Cynthia Wallace

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    The UTC campus in Chattanooga
    Photo by Tim Barber

FAFSA help

For free help filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, contact the Southern Appalachian Educational Opportunity Center at 423-425-1702. The center serves Hamilton, Marion, Sequatchie, Bledsoe and Grundy counties in Tennessee and Walker, Dade and Catoosa counties in Georgia.

PDF: Scholarship fund

When Bill Holland found out his 21-year-old daughter, Lauren, wanted a college degree, he wasted no time in taking the first step: helping her file for federal financial aid.

Knowing nothing about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, they did an Internet search for the acronym and came across www.fafsa.com. The Web site directed them to file an application and, after slogging through many questions, they paid $79 for the service.

"It didn't catch me as any surprise that they were asking for money," said Mr. Holland, a Chattanooga resident. "I wanted my daughter to get some financial aid."

But anyone can fill out the FAFSA forms on their own for free.

Dozens of parents and hopeful college students in North Georgia and Southeast Tennessee report concerns about paying to fill out the FAFSA after they learned they could have applied on their own through the U.S. Department of Education, said Cynthia Wallace, director of the Southern Appalachian Educational Opportunity Center.

Many who report having paid a Web site to fill out FAFSA are poor, first-time college students who have no knowledge or understanding of how the process actually works, she said.

"It really concerns me because it is easy to fall for," she said.

Concerns over financial aid fraud have shifted in recent years, according to a Federal Trade Commission annual report on college scholarship and financial aid fraud.

In 1996, when the FTC began reporting to Congress about financial aid fraud, students and their families were complaining about scholarship scams and fee-based "guaranteed" scholarship search services, said the report, released last month.

Today, the most common complaints are about financial aid consulting services, such as www.fafsa.com, that charge fees to complete the FAFSA, the report shows.

Mary Fallon, a spokeswoman for Student Financial Aid Services Inc., which runs www.fafsa.com, said the $79 fee is not just to file a FAFSA but also to have help available to them in completing the application. She said their Web site offers a simpler form than FAFSA and that people's answers are run through error-detection software.

"Just like people use tax consultants to file their taxes, which they could do on their own, we prepare the student aid application," she said. "We always tell them they can do it themselves. ... I think we are very upfront and very fair."

Still, Ms. Wallace said students should be wary of more than just Web sites that charge for FAFSA. Nearly 25 students in the region every year tell her they received letters from companies claiming to have access to millions of dollars in scholarships.

The mailings are targeted to low-income areas and tell students to meet a company representative at a local hotel. At the meeting, students are told to pay between $1,000 to $2,500 if they want to find money for college.

Often, the companies will only fill out a FAFSA form for the students and give them a few scholarship Web sites. After they leave town, the students never hear from them again, she said.

"They know these students know less about college," Ms. Wallace said. "They lure them to the hotel and talk about all the money that is out there. The students could access it all for free."

After paying to file the FAFSA, Mr. Holland said he was frustrated to learn that he could have gotten help and filled out the application for free. In the fine print, www.fafsa.com says it is not affiliated with the U.S. Department of Education, but Mr. Holland, like so many others, didn't read the fine print.

"I would say anybody could have fallen for it," he said. "It didn't feel good."

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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