Does FAFSA.com Con Its Way into the Wallets of the Uninitiated?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — What’s the difference between FAFSA.gov and FAFSA.com?

About $79.95. If you pick the live service with a phone counselor, it's $99.99.

Not a princely sum perhaps, but if you’re looking for advice on filing out the FAFSA, it’s money that might be best left in your bank account, because you’ll get similar—if not better—advice from FAFSA.gov, a Federal government website, that you won't have to pay for.

FAFSA, the Free Application for Student Aid, is the Department of Education's gateway to Federal student aid, as well as some state aid and institutional aid from colleges themselves and are most likely to be filled out by parents of prospective students. They're also mandatory for Pell Grants. Applications can be filed online here until midnight, June 30 Central Standard Time for the 2015-16 academic year. Corrections can be made until September 17, 2015. Deadlines can be found at here.

The company that runs FAFSA.com, Student Aid Financial Services, Inc. has been reviewed all over the blogosphere, and while the reviews seem generally negative, a big complaint doesn't concern anything that is actually illegal, but the ease with which the dot com website which you pay for out of pocket can be confused with the dot gov domain where you don’t.

"Paying FAFSA vendors is similar to getting your taxes done by H&R Block or Turbo Tax when you're capable of doing them yourself," said Andrew Josuweit, president of Student Loan Hero. "Not only are you paying these companies to save time, you might also be unsure of yourself and think it's worth having a second pair of eyes to review and make sure that everything is correct." The likelihood, however, is that few people fill out the FAFSA alone, even if harried high school guidance counselors aren't the ones to pitch in. FAFSA.com points out on its website that you can file for free at FAFSA.gov but without "professional assistance," as though the people working for the federal government aren't pros or don't get paid.

People who pay for FAFSA advice likely want to talk to a real person. That's available for free also, at 1-800-4-Fed-Aid. Wait times could be the rub. FAFSA.gov tells you what line items from your tax return to use in reporting income, an area that thwarts many FAFSA filers.

Sizing up qualitative experiences within the universe of FAFSA filers is essentially guesswork. But the notion that people struggle with this has taken on a life of its own. The word "intimidating" has been used to describe the process by more than one guide. The 2015 FAFSA handbook produced by the Center for New York City Affairs, FAFSA: The How-To Guide for High School Students (And the Adults Who Help Them), written by Kim Nauer and Sandra Salmans, betrays the expectation that people will struggle. The first paragraph on page one states, "Filing out the FAFSA can be intimidating. Don't worry. Just try it." That don't-worry-be-happy message may not be a tonic to parents who fear the worst.

Among the free advice available on the Web are Websites such as Edvisors.com, which contains a link to Amazon.com and Mark Kantrowtiz’s book, Filing the FAFSA, which can be had for $9.95--or for free as a down loan from the Edvisors.com site. The fact that a 246 page book could be written about a this single application does suggest a daunting level of difficulty.

Other sources of free advice include collegeview.com, which has a list of ten common FAFSA errors parents make in filing out the form. Free advice also comes from state agencies like California Cash for College from the California Student Aid Commission and the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (www.nasfaa.org) has FAFSA worksheets and other information on its Website.

The phone-based advice you get may depend who answers your call and that person's experience--or lack of it--when it comes to analyzing problems and dispensing advice. Deb Peterson of adulted.about.com, an About.com Website, says, "Neither high schools or colleges nor the federal student aid telephone help desk have enough trained experts available to assist all college-bound and college students with their financial aid needs." She also points out that you've probably already paid for advice from the Federal government through your tax dollars.

The U.S. News & World Report education blog also provides some free advice in blog form. Author Lynn O'Shaughnessy noted in January 2011 the observation of a Certified Public Accountant who said that she had never seen a FAFSA form completed by parents that didn't contain at least one error.

--Written by John Sandman for MainStreet

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