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Categorized | Financial Aid vs – Which Is The Better Option?

When it comes to paying for college, the word FAFSA is synonymous with financial aid. Over the years, I have received a number of inquiries from families regarding the use of versus the website. I certainly have my opinions but in an effort to be fair and balanced on the subject matter, I recently asked Mary Fallon from Student Financial Aid Services, Inc. (the company behind to provide an objective comparison of the two resources. The following is an informative article that Mary put together to help provide some guidance. Feel free to comment below if you think she missed anything…

College planning is in full swing by high school seniors. After using colleges’ net price calculators to compare their financial aid and costs estimates, students can request aid by preparing the lengthy, and sometimes daunting, federal student aid application (FAFSA).  Nearly everyone – regardless of income – qualifies for student aid.

Two Options.

To encourage students to prepare a FAFSA each year, the federal government offers two options: either answer FAFSA questions on the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) website for free, or, much like income tax preparation, get help from a service that charges a fee for FAFSA preparation and financial aid advice.

By law, FAFSA services must inform students of preparation options. No legitimate service charges for only submitting a FAFSA. Fees pay for application preparation. But avoid paying huge fees. Top FAFSA preparation services cost only about $100 and have refund policies.

Where to Get Help.

Most high school counselors don’t have the time or aid expertise to prepare students’ FAFSAs. Colleges’ financial aid professionals often advise admitted students about how to answer FAFSA questions. But extremely few colleges actually prepare students’ FAFSAs. However, most states do offer a one-day College Goal Sunday or other events where financial aid experts answer FAFSA questions without charge. Recommended by Terry Savage, a nationally-known personal finance expert, fee-based service Student Financial Aid Services, Inc. ( offers free and discounted help to thousands of low-income students each year. It provides assistance in multiple languages.

Why Get Help?

Time and possibility of mistakes are the top two reasons students choose getting help from a fee-based FAFSA service rather than to tackle it themselves. Novices spend about 78 minutes to complete a FAFSA, according to the DOE’s latest statistics.  Repeat FAFSA applicants shave only 11 minutes off that time. However, a professional student aid advisor can walk a student (or parent) through FAFSA preparation in about 30 minutes.

Mistakes Reduce Aid.

The FAFSA’s more than 130 asset, income and dependency questions can appear simple. Yet correct answers aren’t always obvious. FAFSA mistakes, such as miscalculating adjusted gross income or counting a primary residence as an asset, will reduce an aid award.  When caught by the DOE, mistakes temporarily bump a student out of the virtual, first-come, first-served line for aid. But unfortunately some mistakes that can lower aid don’t get flagged by the DOE for correction. A lot is at stake. During the 2012-13 academic year, $227 billion in federal, state and institutional aid was available to more than 17 million U.S. college students. Last year, undergraduates on average received about $11,000 in aid.

Self Help vs. Pro Help.

The FAFSA on the DOE’s website includes a ‘help’ feature to guide students. In contrast, a high quality, fee-based FAFSA preparation services offer one-on-one counseling, track and inform students about deadlines, answer difficult or confusing questions, provide estimates of the amount of federal and state aid a student can expect to receive, and  most importantly, double check for errors by reviewing every FAFSA answer twice. The best FAFSA services not only use a computer review of a FAFSA, but rely on professional student aid advisors to carefully read each answer. Avoid any service that suggests gaming the system by inaccurately answering FAFSA questions. Also, top services earn an A+ Better Business Bureau rating and are recommended by their clients.

For help, the DOE also offers an online chat in English or Spanish –available Monday through Friday mornings and on Saturdays. Some preparers provide experts who speak multiple languages, a service that many parents of first-generation college students find helpful. Fee-based services usually are open for extended hours during the week and on weekends.

Apply in January.

To be eligible for the most aid possible, apply for aid in January. Students applying in January are more likely to receive more free grant aid than those who delay beyond state or college deadlines. There’s no need to wait until income taxes are filed to prepare a FAFSA. Income can be estimated and a FAFSA submitted early to save a place in the virtual aid line. Income figures can be corrected later. An advantage of FAFSA preparers is that some have access to the FAFSA months before the January 1st start of the aid season. They prepare aid applications with income estimates early and submit them January 1st so their clients are among the first in the virtual line for aid.

Whether preparing the FAFSA at no cost on the DOE’s website, or getting help from a professional FAFSA preparation service, be sure to accurately answer questions, sign the application, and submit it in January to be eligible for the most aid possible.

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One Response to “ vs – Which Is The Better Option?”

  1. Amy says:

    Great guide through a very confusing and intimidating process. Well done.