Would you pay $200 to save $10,000? Or $25,000? Or $40,000? Let me start off by saying that hiring a college financial aid consultant (or college financing consultant) is not absolutely necessary. Many families manage to put in the time and effort to research the financial aid process, and end up doing just fine. Having said that, I’ve seen firsthand how being uninformed and making mistakes in this area can lead to devastating consequences.
A friend of mine (we’ll call him Rob) is a prime example. He hired a “financial aid consultant” to help him navigate the bewildering college financing system when his oldest son was applying to colleges. I don’t know the exact qualifications for the man who showed up at Rob’s house to “help” him, but, he was clearly not qualified. Rob’s son was subsequently admitted to the expensive private school of his choice (which was no surprise, since it wasn’t a selective school), and they paid full price for the privilege. The son graduated, and now, 4 years later, both Rob and his son are still struggling every month to cover the payments on over $80,000 in student loans. I look incredulously at Rob and ask him, “What were you thinking?” His response: “We just didn’t know.”
So if you want to be sure that you’re informed about getting the most free college money, you may want to hire a professional. Let’s take a closer look…
1. How does someone become a college financing consultant? They go to their computer and print up business cards with their name, phone number, and the words “College Financial Aid Consultant” on them. That’s it. There is no governing board or regulatory agency to qualify, regulate or monitor them. It’s up to you to determine if they are qualified.
2. Exactly what does a college financing consultant do? An ethical, qualified college financing consultant will tell you all about the financial aid process. They will answer questions like:
a. What is financial aid?
b. How do I apply for it?
c. How much can I get?
They will also provide you with advice on exactly how and when to apply. They will go through the applications question-by-question, making sure that you answer each one accurately. They will help you sort through financial aid award letters, and help you determine which offer is the best for you. If you have special circumstances, they will help you submit an appeal to the financial aid office.
3. What does an ethical, qualified college financing consultant NOT do?
a. They will not ask you for your PIN in order to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) for you. That’s illegal.
b. They will not tell you to lie about your income or assets in order to receive aid your wouldn’t normally qualify for.
c. And they will never, NEVER offer to sell you an annuity. Some insurance agents have realized that parents who are applying for financial aid are prime targets for buying annuities. Why is that? Because annuities aren’t listed as an asset for financial aid purposes. If a family has $100,000 in investments (stocks, bonds, CDs, etc.), that amount must be listed as assets on their FAFSA. However, if they liquidate all of it and buy a $100,000 annuity, they don’t have to list it on their FAFSA, and they may be eligible for more financial aid. Don’t be fooled. Anyone who offers to sell you an annuity is an insurance agent, not a college financing consultant.
4. What does a college financing consultant charge? Most reputable college financial aid consultants charge a fraction of what admissions consultant charge, and will probably end up saving you a lot more than what you paid.
If you decide to look for an ethical, qualified college financial aid consultant, there are two main questions to ask:
1. Have you ever worked in a college aid office? This answer should always be “Yes”. There are over 7000 federal regulations that deal with financial aid, and only someone who has worked in the “trenches” can really know the ins-and-outs of the application process, eligibility, packaging, etc.
2. Are you licensed to sell annuities? This answer should always be “No”. I have run into many of these “financial aid consultants” who make a KILLING selling annuities, but don’t offer very good college financing advice.
So now that you know the ropes, don’t end up like my friend, Rob. Like hiring a tax preparer when you don’t know much about taxes, hiring a qualified, reputable college financing consultant can make a scary, confusing process easier, and may even save you money.