Navigating the financial aid maze

More parents are turning to college financial planners for advice on how to pay for college.

For high school students about to graduate and head off to college, February is a month filled with acronyms, abbreviations and confusion. There's the FAFSA. EFC. PLUS. SAR.

Understanding and navigating that student aid alphabet can seem like a calculus problem in itself, which is leading some parents to hire private college aid planners to help paint the best financial picture (or worst, as the case may be) possible.

That’s what brought high school junior Caya Williams and her mother Erika Ijames-Wilson to Karen Powell’s office in suburban Atlanta. Powell is a Certified Financial Planner and a senior college planning consultant.

“We’re squarely middle class,” says Ijames-Wilson. She and her husband make a decent living, but have told Caya it’s up to her to pay for college if she wants to go.

And she wants to go.

Her first choice is Spelman College, a private historically black women’s college in Atlanta. A year can approach $40,000.

“Our reality is that estimated family contribution is hers, and that’s a lot to put on an 18-year-old,” says Ijames-Wilson.

That’s why she’s considering paying college planner Karen Powell between $350 and $2,500 to help Caya take advantage of opportunities for scholarships and aid.

So what will they get for that money?

Powell says a comprehensive, six-pronged approach that begins with beefing up academics. Since Caya is already in good shape there, the next move is to scrutinize finances.

“There’s tax strategies and income shifting and asset shifting,” says Powell.

Take income shifting: if a family owns a business where the student works, for instance, Powell recommends raising the teenager’s salary, then sitting aside that money for school. That offers a tax savings, because the student’s tax bracket is lower than the parents’.

Another way to shift income is hit up the college fund ahead of time to buy things the students will need for school. That way there’s less cash in the bank, cash that could count against financial aid eligibility.

But Powell says it’s not about gaming the financial aid system.

“We especially look for ways they will not be disadvantaged by the way their either income or assets are being held,” she says.

Powell is upfront about her fees, which are priced “a la carte” starting at a few hundred dollars.

Other college planners aren’t so transparent.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of the book "The College Solution." She says a lot of planners are really just insurance agents looking to sell you a policy. “And the problem is with these insurance guys, they can tell perspective clients, ‘Oh, well, I got a $15,000 scholarship for this family,’ or ‘$13,000 a year for that family.’ And it sounds all well and good, but the thing is, usually those families would’ve gotten that money anyway.”

That’s not to say there isn’t good advice to be had, even if it comes at a price. Mary Fallon says some parents need help filling out the financial aid form. She’s a spokeswoman for Student Financial Services, Inc., which runs the website FAFSA.com.

“The federal government lets you prepare your own income taxes for free, or you can get help from an income tax preparation service,” Fallon explains. “And the same thing works with the FAFSA.”

Fallon’s group charges between $80 and $300 to help fill out the federal aid form.

With in-state tuition averaging more than $22,000 a year, and private schools almost double that, parents and perspective students are easy prey for unscrupulous college planners.

Consumer advocates say avoid those who use the hard sell to get you to shell out cash for their products. And if you don’t know whether something’s legit, call your local college’s financial aid office.

Its services are free.

About the author

Jim Burress is a reporter for WABE in Atlanta.

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