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Five On Your Side Sorts Out Confusion Over Dueling Financial Aid Sites

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Thousands of students get millions of dollars in financial aid every year to help them get through college. To get the financial aid, you have to apply for it. The process can be confusing and one Web site is adding to that confusion.

Books, tuition, housing -- the list of college costs seems endless. It is why many students rely on financial aid. To get it, students have to fill out the 5-page Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. The form is available online through the Department of Education at FAFSA.ed.gov.

However, when Brenda Gilchrist, a financial aid advisor for Wake Technical Community College, looked at another Web site, FAFSA.com, offering similar information to the government's Web site, she was upset.

"Oh, I was angry when I first saw it. You could easily make a mistake," she said.

FAFSA.com is run by a private company called Student Financial Aid Services. The company charges $40 to $80 for information students can get free. Gilchrist said the Web site angers her because she said all you get for your money is someone filling out the aid form.

"It's the same information you can get from your guidance counselor or that you can get from any financial aid service office in any of the colleges," she said. "There is no advantage whatsoever to have someone else do this for you whether it is this Web site here or anybody else. There is no advantage at all."

Michael Alexander, the owner of Student Financial Aid Services, used to work as a university financial aid director. He compares his company to a tax preparation service saying "we're in no way trying to misrepresent ourselves and what we do."

Alexander said he just offers an "optional service" to help families get through "government bureaucracy."

"[It's] very misleading. Very misleading," Gilchrist said.

Gilchrist is concerned that many students are confused by Alexander's site and think they have to pay the fee.

"They've used the FAFSA, and it is so similar to the Department of Education that you think you're in the same place," she said.

Michael Alexander told WRAL his company will refund the fee charged to anyone who mistakenly thought they were at the government Web site.