By Jane M. Winand, Legal Assistance Attorney
College is getting more expensive and more students are seeking financial aid to help pay the tuition bill.
If you are a student seeking financial aid, you should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, at https://fafsa.ed.gov/.
Although the official deadline for submitting the FAFSA is June 30, many schools allocate funds on a first-come, first-served basis, so it is to your advantage to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible.
Even if you have not yet completed your annual income tax return, you may submit the FAFSA with estimates and then update it as you complete your taxes.
If you are contacted by a company offering to assist with your FAFSA application for a fee, save yourself some money. Visit the U.S. Department of Education’s website for student aid and log on to the FAFSA website to look at the application. It is user-friendly.
Additional information and assistance is available by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).
While searching for financial aid options, be cautious about scholarship and student loan scams. Some companies may claim that they have programs — for a fee, of course — that will make you eligible for grants, loans and other forms of aid.
However, the only application that will determine eligibility for all programs is the FAFSA.
Unscrupulous companies guarantee scholarship, grants and fabulous aid packages — many at high-pressure sales seminars. In exchange for an advance fee, companies may guarantee scholarships on behalf of students and include a “money-back guarantee” that makes you think the company is legitimate.
Unfortunately, the money-back guarantee comes with so many conditions that it is pretty much impossible to get a refund. Some companies provide nothing for the advance fee, not even a list of potential aid and scholarship sources.
Other scammers ask for a student’s checking account information to confirm eligibility and then debit the account for the advance fee without the student’s consent.
You should suspect a potential scam when you hear any of the following:
- “The scholarship is guaranteed or your money back.”
- “You have been selected by a national foundation to receive a scholarship.”
- “We just need your credit card or bank account number to hold this scholarship.”
- “You are a finalist in a scholarship contest (that you never entered).”
Here are some simple steps to follow if you attend a seminar on financial aid:
- Take your time and consider all of your options. Avoid high pressure sales tactics and “one-time only” offers.
- Investigate the company that you are considering paying for help. Seek assistance from a guidance counselor or financial aid advisor first. Free help may be available.
- Be wary of glowing testimonials from prior students who were assisted by the company. They may be paid for their endorsement. Ask for a list of at least three families in your area who used the services recently and contact them.
- Legitimate businesses will answer all of your questions. If a company representative is being evasive, consider using a different company.
- Pin the sales rep down on the specific amount to be charged, the services to be performed and the company’s refund policy, and get this information in writing.
If you have been the victim of a financial aid scam, you may file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov.
For more information, call the Fort Meade Legal Assistance Office at 301-677-9504 or 301-677-9536.