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originally published at http://wrcbtv.com/special_reports/onside1.cfm and reproduced here under the fair use doctrine.
Copyright © 2005 Sarkes Tarzian Inc

I-team Examines Offers for College Financial Aid

You wouldn't want to pay more than you have to for college financial aid, but Channel 3's I-team has learned many people may be doing just that. College costs. We all know that, but Michelle Young thought she was getting a head start on her son's college education, and he's just going to high school.

Michelle Young/Parent: "I thought, you know this is great."

An invitation telling her T.J. had been chosen to attend a presentation on college financial aid. The invitation... from a New York based company called "Edifi." But before biting, Michelle did some checking.

Young: "So I called the Better Business Bureau. The lady there told me 'yes it was a legitimate company', but she told me the track record is not very good."

In fact, here's Edifi's rap sheet with the BBB... an unsatisfactory record... complaints mostly from unhappy consumers reporting misleading sales pitches, dissatisfaction with the service, and unanswered complaints.

Jim Winsett/Chattanooga Better Business Bureau: "They've certainly had numerous complaints registered against them."

28 just last year. Still, many people come to their sessions... like these held recently at the Chattanooga Trade and Convention Center. Inside, the company offers help with financial aid forms, and says is helps clients get the most money possible. But this help comes with a price... 895-bucks.

John Looney/UTC Financial Aid Director: "These companies aren't necessarily doing anything illegal, but they're unethical a lot of the times because they're charging a fee for a service that would be free elsewhere."

This family paid the 895-dollars. We caught up with them following one of the company's presentations...

Martin asks, "You know you can get a lot of that same information from your high school guidance counselor for free?" ... John Johns/EDIFI customer, "I did not know that."... Martin adds, "Or from your college financial aid office?"... Johns replies, "I did not know that either."

Arlene Johns/EDIFI Customer, "I don't know. I'm stunned. Very stunned."

As were we when EDIFI complained about our presence to Trade Center security...

Security Guard: "I'm a security guard." Martin asks, "Who's the complaint from?" The guard answers, "These people here. I just need to assess it." Martin asks, "What are they complaining about?" The guard responds, "They're going to tell you."

This man claims to be EDIFI's on-site contact.

Martin asks, "Why are you charging people for a service they could basically get for free?" The man answers, "We really don't have time. People are here by invitation only. If you want to make an appointment we can talk to you." Martin asks, "Did you tell them about your Better Business Bureau record?" The man responds, "If you want to make an appointment we can discuss it with you."

We then wanted to know if we could simply show you their sales seminar. The answer was no.

Martin asks, "But if we're here, why can't we go in unless you have something you don't want us to hear?" The man answers, "Because we're on business and we've paid to be here. People are here by invitation only, and that's the way we run our business."

The company did send us a statement saying it's a 'service company', adding "Service businesses provide consumers with a choice: do it yourself or pay someone else to do it. Many service providers do a better job than the consumer can..."

But UTC's financial aid office says it knows a thing or two about financial aid. So do high school guidance counselors. They also provide a service... for free.

Looney: "Before you give them your credit card information, be sure you know what you're getting into and pursue free avenues elsewhere first."

And about that BBB report, EDIFI says it feels it is outdated and that reasonable complaints to the Better Business Bureau have largely disappeared. Here are some suggestions from the Federal Trade Commission. Take your time. Don't be rushed into paying at any seminar. Investigate the company. Ask guidance counselors or financial aid advisors. The same help may be free. Also, be leery if a representative is reluctant to answer your questions. Legitimate businesses are willing to do that. Find out the total fee, what services will be provided, what's the refund policy, and get it all in writing.

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