Guest column: Don’t pay for educational planning services you can get for free

As the process for students to complete college and financial aid applications accelerates each fall, so too does marketing for fee-based educational planning services.

Families may receive invitations to special events hosted by private vendors that conclude with a pitch to sign a contract for ongoing college planning services and assistance with student financial aid. The message from vendors is often similar: College is competitive, confusing and extremely expensive; and without these fee-based services, a student’s college prospects are at risk.

The messaging may be particularly designed to appeal to families who do not have college-going experience themselves but want to ensure that their students don’t miss out on opportunities that families with that experience can provide.

Here’s what every family in Illinois needs to know: Most of the college planning and financial aid services offered by companies for a fee are actually available for free – provided by high schools and school counselors, reputable nonprofit organizations and the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, the state’s college access and financial aid agency. This includes help with college planning and applications, finding grants and scholarships, completing financial aid applications and career exploration.

As students complete college and financial aid applications this fall, there is free support available statewide: expert one-on-one help available from school counselors and the ISACorps, ISAC’s trained team of local near-peer mentors for high school students; college and financial aid application completion workshops; online resources through the ISAC Student Portal; a text messaging app that provides answers from experts to college planning and financial aid questions; and more.

Gov. JB Pritzker recently signed a bill into law that goes into effect in January to ensure that families are not legally trapped in long-term contracts with vendors who charge for educational planning and financial aid services. The Educational Planning Services Consumer Protection Act – the Segura Law – requires that such vendors disclose that similar services may be available for free from a school, library or ISAC. It requires that vendors allow customers to cancel at any time and obtain a refund if they paid for services that they did not receive. If the vendor communicated with a potential client primarily in a language other than English, they must make their contract and disclosures available in that other language, too.

Providing every family in Illinois the opportunity for education after high school requires not only adequate need-based funding for postsecondary education, but the information and support students need to access that funding and to make more informed decisions about their education.

Illinois continues to demonstrate its commitment to equitable access to education through its support for free statewide assistance to students and through the new protections offered by the Educational Planning Services Consumer Protection Act. If you are a student considering education after high school, ISAC invites you to take advantage of all the free resources available to help you get there.

• Eric Zarnikow is executive director of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.