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U.S. firm reaps fee for form the feds give free

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Applying for financial aid for college shouldn’t cost anything, counselors say, and that’s why the federal government put the word "free" into its Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

But a for-profit company that uses the federal acronym "FAFSA" on its website has many families forking over $79.99 to fill out the free online application themselves and have it reviewed afterward by an "adviser."

How to file

Visit www.fafsa.gov for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Call 800-4-FED-AID or 800-433-3243. Questions can also be answered via the "Live Help" online chat at fafsa.gov or by e-mail to FederalStudentAidCustomerService@ed. gov.

"It’s a free service, so why should they be making money off of people, especially young kids trying to get an education?" asked Darlene Lee, who mistakenly signed onto fafsa.com instead of fafsa.gov last year when her son was applying to Windward Community College.

It wasn’t until she got to the end of the lengthy application that she discovered it would cost nearly $80, she said. By that time she was bumping up against a deadline, so she forked over the money.

"When I was almost finished, it kept prompting for the money," she recalled. "By the time you put in the time and all that information, I didn’t want to go through the process again."

A couple of months ago, she was surprised to see the company had charged her again, this time for $67.99 to renew the application for this year. She successfully fought that charge and easily renewed online for free at the government website.

With high school seniors and their families in the throes of filling out financial aid forms, school counselors are urging parents to use fafsa.gov and take advantage of the free help the government provides in filling out the online form through its toll-free phone line, live chat option and other online assistance.

"What I preach to the students, if people are asking for a fee to file FAFSA or to get scholarship applications, don’t do it," said Eunice Fukunaga, college counselor at Waipahu High School. "It should be free."

Recently a colorful booklet titled "How to Pay for College the Smart Way" landed in selected mailboxes in Waipahu. It directed readers to fafsa.com and the company’s toll-free phone number, noting that help was available for a "small service fee."

Mary Fallon, spokeswoman for Student Financial Aid Services Inc., which operates the for-profit fafsa.com website, said her company provides a service similar to tax preparers, and costs are clearly disclosed on its website. It charges $79.99 and up for a client to fill in the form online and have the company review it. The fee is $99.99 and higher for a consultation with a student aid adviser who prepares the form over the phone. The website notes the form can be filed free on the government website.

"Just like income taxes, the federal government gives students two options for preparing their student aid applications," she said in a phone interview from company headquarters in Sacramento. "One is to do it themselves, which is free, obviously, and the other is to get help from a professional that charges a fee.

"Not everyone has the interest, time or knowledge to complete it accurately and quickly, particularly if you are going to college for the first time and you’re a senior," she said. "A lot of people make lots of mistakes. It is a complicated form."

For example, unless they read carefully, applicants might not realize that their primary residence is not included as an asset in calculating the need for financial aid, Fallon said. She said the company has hundreds of thousands of clients every year.

"We’re not charging for submitting the FAFSA; we’re charging for our expertise," she said.

Others contend that that expertise is readily available elsewhere at no cost.

"If you do it independently, you go online and there’s a screen that shows a few questions at a time, and it’s actually not that difficult," said Sally Nhomi Mennella, who helps coordinate family events for college and career preparation at Waipahu High. "And there’s a toll-free number that’s run by the government that’s available for people to call if they’re not clear on a question. There will be FAQs and guidance along the way.

"A lot of people are insecure thinking it’s a government form and it must be difficult," Mennella added. "They don’t want to make a mistake. But any financial aid office will help as a public service, regardless of if you’re attending that school. Community colleges are very welcoming."

The government student aid website urges students to "Tell your friends!" that the official form is at www. fafsa.gov, "not a .com site."

FAFSA can be filed any time after Jan. 1, and students are encouraged to apply as soon as possible because financial aid is often awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Fukunaga urged parents not to wait until they have filed their 2010 tax returns, but to use their 2009 information on the application and update it later.

"If they wait until April 15, a lot of the funds are going to be gone," Fukunaga said, "even if they qualify for the money."

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