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In a lean and mean economy, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a great vehicle for gaining access to all the college aid that Uncle Sam offers. But like most government documents, you’ll need to channel your inner Sherlock Holmes to navigate it.

To make sure you get all you can from your FAFSA filing, should you hire a financial adviser to act as a FAFSA tour guide? Here’s a look at both sides of the issue.

First, while the FAFSA is free, it’s going to cost you a few bucks to hire a college financial aid consultant. A one-time meeting to cover the basics should run about $100, but an in-depth review of the FAFSA can cost more — way more. Some financial aid consultants charge as much as $1,000 for a more comprehensive take on the FAFSA.

Still, with the average price of a four-year private college at $25,143 in 2009, according to the College Board, every penny counts when it comes to college financial aid. So if a seasoned financial aid professional can dig up several thousand dollars in FAFSA funds, then you’re way ahead of the game.

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Before you begin vetting possible FAFSA consultants, know that the government has a decent online resource center. The site has tutorials on understanding the form, and offers access via “chat sessions” with its own team of FAFSA experts. It’s all free and that alone might give you all the information you need to maximize your FAFSA efforts.

But if it’s not, and you want to hire your own financial aid guru, make sure to:

  • Hire a FAFSA consultant who can fill out the FAFSA form for you. Anyone who claims to be a college funding expert, but doesn’t fill out the form for you, isn’t the expert you thought.
  • Contact the campus financial aid office of the college you’re targeting. Ask if they can refer a loan consultant, or at least can tell you if a specific FAFSA consultant has a good or bad reputation.
  • Look for an insider. Most likely, your best bet is a FAFSA expert who has worked in a college financial aid office or who has experience as a financial adviser or accountant. That kind of hands-on training is what you’re looking for in a financial aid consultant.
  • Avoid unscrupulous advisers. College funding experts who recommend that you fudge the numbers on your assets or ask you to take other unethical steps are a big red flag. You and you alone will be held liable if you lie about assets or otherwise hide financial information to cut a better deal.

If you have the time, the Sallie Mae Web site listed above should suffice. If not, go ahead and hire a FAFSA expert to do the job for you — but tread carefully.

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