Do you need a financial aid consultant?

"The states that don't have College Goal Sunday all have state assistance programs that will help students complete the FAFSA," says Marcia Weston, director of College Goal Sunday. Weston says that on top of CGS, students can find additional free assistance through the Department of Education or through the countless free financial aid information sites on the Web.

Aid office limits

Financial aid officers and consultants agree that colleges can't provide the same amount of one-on-one attention that a private financial aid consultant can, and that college officers primarily focus on informing parents about federal government, state and school-sponsored aid. In other words, a standard aid officer probably won't research and hand-select a folder full of golf scholarships from athletic organizations for your team-captain kid the way a private financial aid consultant might.

"Someone from an affluent family that's looking for a way to save time and money will find (a consultant) beneficial," says Scott Rhodes, associate vice president of enrollment for Saint Leo University in Florida. "But there are things you should watch out for."

Evaluating the efficacy of a private consultant is challenging. Since there's no required professional credentials to break into the field, the profession is riddled with scammers. And for incoming college freshman, there's no way to tell how much financial aid the family would have won without a consultant's services.

"If someone says 'I guarantee that you'll get $2,500 in financial aid,' that should be a red flag," Rhodes says.

Rhodes warns parents to watch out for consultants who guarantee a certain level of aid and those who come with less than five years of experience or without references.

Ramsdell cautions parents to avoid consultants who ask them to sign contracts or buy other financial products such as insurance.

"They should look for a firm that has the sole purpose of getting that student into the best school possible with the best financial aid package," says Ramsdell.

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