Which Part Of "Free" Don't They Understand?

FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Required by almost every college and university in the nation as a prerequisite for consideration for scholarships, grants, work-study, and, yes, even loans.

And did we mention that the application is FREE? Free to complete. Free to submit. Absolutely FREE! [Hence, the word "Free" in "Free Application for Federal Student Aid.]

So, why are folks paying "as little as $79.99" (and sometimes more than $100 a pop) for online services to do nothing more than file FAFSA?

Could it be they enjoy paying unnecessary expenses, on top of what they've shelled out for the SAT, ACT, tutors, coaches, campus visits and application fees?

Or is it that parents, by dint of that seemingly simple Google search for "FAFSA," are landing not on www.fafsa.ed.gov, the official site of FAFSA online, but rather, on www.fafsa.com, the site of a private company that, for a fee (who do they think they are, College Board?), will submit (not prepare nor complete, but merely submit) the form for you. [Maybe not even that. There are reports of such vendors taking the money of unsuspecting parents and students and not filing, or filing incorrectly. And without a proper FAFSA submission (let alone a federal PIN), these now poorer parents/students may not only be out of the filing fee, but out of luck in securing much-needed cash for college.]

Not that there is anything illegal, or inherently evil, in charging a fee to perform a service that one could otherwise do, with relative ease, on one's own. People pay others do avoid doing what they could do on their own, gratis, all the time. It is the inherent deceptive practice (in this instance, blatant) of holding oneself out to the public as the genuine article -- FAFSA -- when, indeed, you are not!

There is, in our opinion, a vast difference between mere puffing and outright duping.

Okay. The folks at fafsa.com do post the following statement on the homepage:

Like filing your taxes, the FAFSA can be filed for free via paper or electronic forms without professional assistance at www.fafsa.ed.gov. Many people however, choose to use a FAFSA preparer, just like a tax preparer, to provide personal advice, consultation and review of their important FAFSA application.

But how many people, especially in their haste to file, and already stressed to the max by the pressure of deadlines, looming college acceptances, and impending tuition bills, are reading, let alone understanding? Then again, when fafsa.com shows up first in your online search for "FAFSA," why would you even think about looking further? The perception created, though false, is that this is FAFSA.

Is it a scam? No. It's someone (The Rezolve Group) taking advantage of an opportunity, even if it belies the reality that, unlike a tax preparer, they are not actually preparing the FAFSA (you enter the very same information here as you would on the real deal), and you are left footing the bill for what is otherwise FREE.

With competition for scarce scholarship money particularly fierce in these tough economic times, and the rush to file for financial aid reaching a fevered pitch, it is understandable  -- and, in fact, prudent -- that parents and students would seek assistance in preparing, completing and submitting the likes of FAFSA and the CSS Profile (which, as a product of College Board, is not free), in searching for scholarship money, and in maximizing financial aid awards. All good. But don't get caught with your wallet open simply for the so-called "convenience" of paying for a service to do little more than press the "submit" button for you.

FAFSA, after all, is FREE. Let's keep it that way!
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