(This article originally appeared on DIYCollegeRankings.com) In July of 2015, the United States government finally gained control of the FAFSA.com website. Until then, the website was owned and operated by Student Financial Aid Service, Inc. which charged students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Over the years, FAFSA.com became the poster child for financial aid scams designed to take advantage students and families trying to get financial aid for college. So does its demise represent the final statement of whether or not students should pay for a private financial aid consultant to complete the FAFSA?
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First, you need to understand why Student Financial Aid Services, Inc has shut down and transferred the website to the government. It isn’t because it’s illegal for people to charge for preparing the FAFSA. It is illegal for companies to provide misleading information, particularly about costs and billing. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the company was operating an illegal recurring payment scheme. Essentially, students were signing up for subscriptions without realizing it.
Ultimately, the company was charging for a service it wasn’t providing which isn’t the same thing as saying that the service wouldn’t actually be valuable.
Why pay for something you can do yourself?
So is paying a FAFSA preparer to complete the FAFSA valuable?
Many college financial aid offices and organizations that help students apply for financial aid frequently and loudly point out that the first F in FAFSA stands for “FREE” and students shouldn’t pay for a free service. The argument is that because it is something you can do for free, any charge is part of a scam to separate unsuspecting or desperate students from their money. And too often, that has been the case.
However, it’s also free to file your taxes with the IRS. Yet, every year many people pay others to prepare and file their taxes for them. Why? Because at the very least, if they’re going to owe on their taxes, they want to pay as little as possible while others hope to get a bigger tax return.
The same principles are involved in completing the FAFSA. Given the cost of college, why shouldn’t people consider hiring someone to prepare the FAFSA?
The obvious answer is the one I’ve already mentioned–because you can do it yourself for free. In fact, there are plenty of free resources available to help families complete the FAFSA. If you’re low-income, chances are that you won’t have to answer most of the questions. And you can pull in most of the information directly from the IRS with the IRS retrieval tool.
Should you hire a private financial aid consultant?
Yet people make mistakes. It can be anything from accidentally entering a wrong number to misunderstanding where to enter information from various financial accounts.