March 14, 2012
Many prospective college freshmen and their parents are making the mistake of filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid through a website that charges for the service.
The website, FAFSA.com, is often at the top of the page in a Google search for "FAFSA," which is apparently why so many have been misled. Those who use the site must pay about $80 for the service. The actual website where families can submit their FAFSA at no charge is located at FAFSA.ed.gov.
"The amount of money they're charging for something that's free is the biggest concern," said Elsa Martinez, a financial adviser for the nonprofit ACCESS, who was interviewed by WBZ-TV. "The reason why the federal government makes it free is because most of our students don't have the funds to pay."
According to the Times-Tribune in Kentucky, financial aid offices at Eastern Kentucky University, Union College, Somerset College and University of the Cumberlands have all heard from parents and students who inadvertently used the fee-based website. Jessica Cook, director of financial aid at Union College, told the Times-Tribune that this year in particular, she's heard from more parents who used FAFSA.com by mistake.
The website apparently does not just find customers through Google. As reported by The Record in New Jersey, students and parents recently received letters in the mail urging them to use FAFSA.com. Stacy Salinas, president of the New Jersey Association of School Financial Aid Administrators, said that the association planned to notify high schools of the need to warn parents and students about the letter.
Salinas noted that many families make the mistake of paying to submit the free application. "I've heard of parents who have spent all the way up to $1,000 for FAFSA help they could get for free," she told the Record.
Mary A.C. Fallon, communications consultant for Student Financial Aid Services Inc., which is the company behind FAFSA.com, explained that the site is meant to simplify the process of submitting a FAFSA.
"The FAFSA is fairly complex," she told the Times-Tribune, noting that her company is meant to aid people who do not have the time or desire to complete the application. She added that the company is transparent about what they do, and that they have many repeat customers.
A glance at the company's website seems to corroborate her claims. On the top of the home page of FAFSA.com is a message that clearly says, "We are not affiliated with the Dept. of Education." A box at the bottom of the page states, "Like filing your taxes, the FAFSA can be filed for free via paper or electronic forms without professional assistance at www.fafsa.ed.gov. Many people, however, choose to use a FAFSA preparer, just like a tax preparer, to provide personal advice, consultation and review of their important FAFSA application."
Nevertheless, according to Steve Allen, vice president for student financial planning at the University of the Cumberlands, who was quoted by the Times-Tribune, students and parents seem to overlook such statements in their rush to complete the form once they see the word "FAFSA."
Compiled by Yaffa Klugerman
"Area Colleges Seek to Clear Up FAFSA Confusion," thetimestribune.com, March 2, 2012, Becky Killian
"Fair Helps Students, Parents Navigate College Aid Process," northjersey.com, February 26, 2012, Joan Verdon
"Students Warned About Site That Charges for Financial Aid Application," bston.cbslocal.com, March 2, 2012, Kathy Kurran