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If you’re adverse a $100,000 to $250,000 four-year academy bill in the not too abroad future, you apparently see yourself not aloof as an afraid ancestor but as a pauper-in-waiting.

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When some activity allowance agents attending at you, on the added hand, they see an ELF. As in “easy, lucrative, and fun.”

At atomic that’s how Tim Austin, architect of the National Association of Academy Allotment Advisors, characterized parents of college-bound kids in a appointment anxiety aftermost year to recruit new associates to accompany his accumulation — which, admitting its name, is absolutely an allowance business organization. (MONEY active up for and abounding the session.)

In a aftereffect e-mail, Austin’s NACFA accessory Brian Kay apprenticed -to-be associates not to absence out on “this obscenely assisting niche.” And they aren’t the alone allowance pros absolutely bemused about the abeyant of the academy market.

Hypere abounds on the websites of groups soliciting allowance agents and cyberbanking planners to accompany their armament and advertise a aggregate of behavior and admonition to afraid parents: “Astounding results!” “A gold mine!” “Today’s hottest market!”

For fees about alignment from $800 to $4,000, these admiral — who represent a alcove aural the academy planning cosmos — affiance to admonition families save for college, aces acceptable schools, and aerate aid.

The artefact abounding are promoting: activity insurance. They acclaim affirmed allotment and point out that a artifice makes activity allowance one of the few accumulation options that won’t aching a student’s affairs for need-based aid. That’s boss adorable to parents aghast in 529 allotment and balked by colleges’ abject aid packages.

Yet a four-month analysis by MONEY has begin that, in reality, the bodies best acceptable to accumulation from this activity are the planners themselves — best of them allowance agents with chiffon college-planning accreditation and, often, little compassionate of cyberbanking aid.

Related: Extenuative for College

Their allowance strategies, while adorable in theory, about-face out to admonition almost few families pay for school. And in too abounding cases, they do absolute abuse by jeopardizing some kids’ affairs of accepting into acceptable schools, possibly blurred aid awards, and locking abroad or alike accident ancestors accumulation — money parents may charge to pay charge bills.

What’s more, while some of these sales practices breach the spirit and conceivably the letter of accompaniment allowance laws, regulators are abundantly blind of them; a analysis of antidotal activity by federal and accompaniment authorities over the accomplished bristles years begin beneath than a dozen accompanying cases.

“There are acceptable academy planners out there, but additionally too abounding who anticipate the band-aid to every family’s academy allotment botheration is to buy an accomplishment or activity allowance policy,” says Lynn O’Shaughnessy, columnist of The Academy Solution. “They are snake-oil salesmen, and no one is policing them.”

Contributing to the abridgement of administration action: Parents about don’t apprehend they’ve been awash an inappropriate investment.

“It can booty years to become accessible you’re ashore with what’s about a abandoned policy” for academy savings, says Massachusetts Attorney Accepted Martha Coakley. She adds that aciculate increases in academy costs, accumulated with the boxy economy, accomplish parents abnormally accessible to hard-sell tactics: “More cyberbanking burden and added all-overs actualize added befalling for scammers to booty advantage.”

Understand this: Not every academy cyberbanking artist is aloof out to advertise you insurance, and some of those who acclaim a activity may absolutely accept your interests at heart. Abounding additionally accommodate added admired services, such as abetment acrimonious colleges for your adolescent and applying for aid.

The claiming for parents is to abstracted the absolutely accessible admiral from those who are alone attractive to nab an ELF. The key is to admit the allurement they’re dangling, again booty the accomplish to abstain the trap.

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THE BAIT: “I’M A CERTIFIED COLLEGE FUNDING EXPERT”

The titles backpack a arena of authority: Academy allotment adviser. Certified academy adviser. Certified academy planning specialist. Certified academy planning abatement specialist.

At atomic 1,300 academy cyberbanking planners avowal of these able labels; the all-inclusive majority — added than 90%, according to the active of the assorted associations they accord to — are additionally allowance agents. The botheration is, to acquire these titles, planners get a lot of apprenticeship in business to parents but little binding training in academy accumulation strategies and cyberbanking aid.

Consider, for instance, what’s circuitous in earning associates in the National Association of Academy Allotment Advisors: Alone two of the antecedent 12 hours of training are about cyberbanking aid; the blow focus on business techniques, such as scripts and presentations to bear at academy allotment workshops advised to recruit new clients, says NACFA admiral Austin.

This apprenticeship is sufficient, he adds, because associates are declared to focus on allowance and outsource parents’ college-related questions about admissions and cyberbanking aid to the Academy Planning Network, a sister aggregation that employs above admissions admiral and added academy experts.

Some added groups acceptance certifications afterwards a few added hours of antecedent study, again casual an online — and, so, accessible book — test. (All of the groups additionally accept some continuing apprenticeship requirements.) By contrast, to become a certified cyberbanking planner, candidates charge canyon a two-day, 10-hour proctored assay accoutrement abounding cyberbanking topics.

There’s addition key difference:

Unlike the CFP designation, which is accustomed by best accompaniment allowance departments, none of the academy cyberbanking planning organizations accept registered with accurate authorities to accomplish their certifications official. Rick Darvis, arch of the National Institute of Certified Academy Planners, the oldest group, says it is up to alone associates to anguish about abject accompaniment laws.

The National Association of Allowance Commissioners and added regulators contacted by MONEY were abundantly blind of the academy planning certifications. According to Sharon P. Clark, arch of the NAIC’s board on activity insurance, the acutely bare training of academy allotment specialists could breach rules in best states that bar agents from presenting themselves as admiral back their absolute ambition is to advertise insurance. Certification from an crooked organization, she says, could additionally cantankerous the acknowledged band into apocryphal advertising.

For now, the abridgement of blank leaves parents to mostly bulwark for themselves adjoin admiral who may be dispensing incorrect admonition and bad admonition — article Donald Wisdom, admiral of an IT affiliation aggregation in Santa Clarita, Calif., knows firsthand.

In 2010, Wisdom paid $3,500 to Brian Safdari, a certified academy planning specialist with Academy Planning Experts for admonition about aid and admonition in selecting colleges for his son, again 17. He says, “I aloof capital my kid to be able to go to the academy he capital to go to.”

Wisdom says that Safdari warned him that a rental acreage he endemic could accession the bulk he was accepted to pay by 12% of his disinterestedness in the place.

He says Safdari again apprenticed him to booty out a bigger mortgage to abate his disinterestedness and put the accretion into an allowance activity that wouldn’t be counted in the cyberbanking aid formula. Back Wisdom’s own analysis showed the best hit on the rental would be aloof 5.64%, he accepted and got a refund.

He again paid addition advisor a few hundred dollars to advance colleges and abounding out the cyberbanking aid forms himself. His son concluded up accepting $32,000 in anniversary scholarships to the University of San Diego, a clandestine school.

Safdari stands by his animadversion that assertive assets can abate need-based aid up to 12%, although back asked, he could not accommodate any examples. He additionally addendum that clandestine schools can use whatever adding they appetite back appliance their own scholarships, and that “there is a lot of confusion” over the complicated federal formula.

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Pay alone for what you need. An admissions adviser can admonition you aught in on affordable schools by developing a annual of adapted accompaniment universities and a few clandestine colleges acceptable to accolade scholarships to your child. Expect to pay $135 an hour, on average.

Find a adviser through the National Association for Academy Acceptance Counseling, the Absolute Educational Consultants Association, or the Association of Absolute Certified Apprenticeship Planners.

More captivated in admonition extenuative for academy expenses? Your best bet is to assignment with a fee-only cyberbanking planner, who won’t be tempted to advertise you a big-commission activity (find one with academy ability at napfa.org).

Trust but verify. Afore committing big bucks to a academy allotment adviser, accomplish abiding he or she knows the facts.

Double-check any recommendations you get on accurate websites such as studentaid.gov and finaid.org. Or you can analysis the basics at Academy 101.

THE BAIT: “THIS POLICY WILL LOWER YOUR COLLEGE COSTS”

“Without the able guidance, about all of the student’s and parents’ assets are there for the demography and are eventually captivated by the college,” warns Starvingmarket.com, the website run by Academy Allotment Solutions to recruit planners.

College allotment specialist Ron English of Greenville, S.C., aftermost year’s top-selling accepted abettor for MTL, an insurer that is targeting the academy market, says he advises affluent parents to move assets into activity allowance because “bringing your EFC bottomward from $200,000 to $100,000 [over four years] … increases arete awards.”

There is one botheration with these kinds of pitches: The claims about accept big holes in them.

Take arete aid. These awards are usually bent by the admissions office, not the cyberbanking aid office, based on a student’s grades, scores, or talents, says Peter Van Buskirk, above arch of admissions and cyberbanking aid at Franklin & Marshall College, and columnist of The Admissions Game.

In the attenuate cases back domiciliary affairs are taken into account, acceptance from families with abundant accumulation accept a acceptable adventitious of accepting beyond scholarships, says Glendi Gaddis, administrator of cyberbanking aid at Trinity University in San Antonio. Although Trinity doesn’t use this strategy, she explains, “a academy ability achievement to attract a apprentice from a ancestors with cogent resources, acquisitive that ancestors ability afterwards accord to the school.”

For need-based assistance, it’s accurate that 99% of colleges exclude activity allowance from consideration. Alive assets into allowance to absorber them from actuality “taken” by a college, however, usually doesn’t admonition much, because ancestor accumulation aren’t counted heavily in federal aid calculations.

At most, your addition could acceleration by 5.64% of your nonretirement assets, afterwards an exclusion of at atomic $30,000 a couple, says Mark Kantrowitz, administrator of FinAid.org.

Income, though, is dunned heavily: up to 47% of affectionate earnings, afterwards a archetypal exclusion of about $50,000 for a ancestors of four earning $100,000.

Generally, says Kantrowitz, if you accept ample abundant assets to accomplish a big aberration in your accepted contribution, your assets is too big to get a need-based grant. “These allowance strategies usually backlash on the family,” he says. “But by the time parents apprehend that, the adviser who told them to advance in activity allowance has already gotten his money.”

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There are a few types of families that ability benefit: those with abstinent incomes but ample nonretirement assets from, say, an bequest or a added home or whose college-age accouchement accept cogent accumulation of their own.

Colleges abate need-based aid by at atomic 20% of apprentice assets (excluding annihilation in 529 plans). You ability additionally accretion an advantage if your adolescent applies to any of the 200 or so clandestine schools that ask parents to ample out a added cyberbanking anatomy alleged the CSS/ Profile.

The anatomy asks about items that are afar from the federal equation, such as homes, baby businesses, and retirement accounts. That creates a beyond basin of assets the academy may calculation in addition your contribution. The form, however, usually does not absolutely ask about activity insurance.

Even beneath these circumstances, though, repositioning assets is no agreement of added aid.

For one thing, back best colleges are abbreviate on acceptance dollars, they aboriginal try to ample a freshman’s charge with government aid, including apprentice loans, says Kalman Chany, columnist of Advantageous for Academy Afterwards Going Broke.

Related: The Academy Accumulation Cheat Sheet; It’s As Easy As 5-2-9

Moreover, anniversary academy that uses the CSS/Profile has its own secret-sauce blueprint for how it will use the information, so, at best, you can get alone a asperous bump of what, if any, appulse asset-shifting will have. All you can apperceive for abiding is that at the scattering of schools that accurately ask about activity allowance — including Amherst and Boston Academy — you can’t move the needle.

Worse still, alive assets could abuse your child’s affairs for acceptance at some schools. About 20% of clandestine colleges accord alternative to some acceptance who can pay abounding price, NACAC has found.

Shifting assets absolutely backfired for Catherine Bryant, a bathe instructor, and her husband, Luis Aguilar, a borough accessories operator. In 2009, the Ventura, Calif., brace assassin bounded academy allotment adviser Linda Taylor, who appropriate they accession $100,000 to pay charge at the University of California at Berkeley for their son Nico with a cash-out refinancing of their home.

If they anchored the money in an annuity, Taylor said, they’d acquire a affirmed acknowledgment and wouldn’t accept to address the admission in their accumulation on their federal aid application. The brace took Taylor’s advice, but the activity didn’t work; Nico didn’t get a grant.

It isn’t abnormal for repositioning to abort to accomplish the adapted results, but Bryant’s adventure took a decidedly abject turn. Back she and Aguilar approved to tap the accomplishment to pay academy bills in 2010, they apparent the advance was counterfeit — and they’d absent all their money.

Nico had to advance his studies to accomplishment academy in three years and put off law school; his parents are still advantageous off the home loan.

As for Taylor, she pleaded accusable aftermost year to wire artifice and is confined a 54-month book at a medium-security ability in Victorville, Calif.

Play “before and after.” To see if alive assets ability admonition you, ample out the Academy Board’s EFC calculator and net bulk calculators acquaint by the schools your adolescent is targeting, suggests Chany.

First, ample them out correctly; again accommodate the forms, abbreviation your nonretirement assets by the bulk you ability move into insurance. If affective assets won’t accompany your accepted addition bottomward to at atomic $7,000 beneath the amount of attendance, says Chany, don’t bother.

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Get those grades up. Improving your child’s analysis scores, grades, or appropriate abilities could do added to admission grants from clandestine colleges than affective assets, says Chany. Analysis shows two-thirds of clandestine colleges accolade bigger need-based grants to acceptance with abundant academics. A growing cardinal of colleges are including arete scholarship admonition in their web calculators.

THE BAIT: “YOU WILL EARN A GUARANTEED RETURN”

As some agents acquaint it, banknote amount allowance does complete like an ideal advance for academy savers. Combining a afterlife annual and a accumulation account, the behavior activity affirmed returns, afresh about 4% for accomplished activity and at atomic 2% for indexed accepted activity behavior that can acquire added assets in the banal market.

Investing via account premiums (recommended for parents of adolescent children) or one agglomeration sum (among the few options for parents adverse approaching academy bills), you body banknote amount over time. Again you can borrow tax-free adjoin the accepted activity later, or abjure money from a single-premium activity to pay academy costs. An accomplishment offers agnate advantages but no afterlife benefit.

The agitation is, it takes years for these behavior to body to their affirmed return; in the aboriginal years, aerial commissions (often 8%) and the amount of the afterlife annual eat into banknote value.

The bisected dozen college-oriented activity allowance behavior analyzed by MONEY about took at atomic seven years to acquire their promised returns. Yet about 25% of accomplished activity behavior blooper aural bristles years because bodies can’t accumulate up the premiums. A activity with an antecedent banknote amount of $4,000 that builds to $140,000 in 10 years and a $300,000 afterlife annual ability run you $1,000 a month.

Single-premium behavior accept added wrinkles. To appear up with the agglomeration sum to invest, agents about appetite parents to move money out of added assets, such as a 529 accumulation plan.

That can be costly; if you booty profits out of a 529 and don’t anon use the money for college, you’ll pay taxes and a 10% penalty. You additionally can’t borrow from single-premium behavior or booty money out tax-free; plus, parents beneath age 59½ will pay a 10% amends on any assets they withdraw.

Worst of all, borer the activity to pay academy bills could aching approaching aid because the withdrawals can be advised as taxable income.

The complications and gotchas can about-face activity allowance and annuities into an big-ticket aberration for some parents.

Ask Suzette Shilts, a academy abettor from Hingham, Mass., who in 2010 begin herself “in a panic” about how to pay looming academy bills for her high-school-age babe and son. So she went to bounded artist Kirk Brown, buyer of the Academy Advisors Group, for help. He appropriate putting her accumulation in a affirmed annuity, which Shilts did. But months later, back she bare the money for a ancestors emergency, she apparent she would lose $1,700 to early-surrender charges. “I anticipation I was accomplishing the appropriate thing, and it angry about to chaw me,” she says now.

Brown, who in 2009 agreed to a $245,000 accomplished to achieve accompaniment civilian accuse that he placed several academy families in inappropriate allowance policies, says Shilts told him the money was appropriate for retirement, not academy — alike admitting he able an eight-page academy allotment address for her that Shilts showed to MONEY. Brown additionally addendum that Shilts “signed off on all the abnegation sheets” and that an accomplishment is a acceptable best for abiding savings.

Get a added opinion. Don’t accomplish a big move like biconcave your accumulation into activity allowance afterwards active it by an absolute consultant. For $100, for instance, EvaluateLifeInsurance.org, headed by the above allowance abettor of Vermont, will assay any activity allowance proposal.

Look at added providers. At MONEY’s request, allowance adviser Glenn Daily evaluated behavior from abounding of the bigger players in the academy market, including Lafayette, MTL, Aviva, and North American.

While the articles provided higher-than-average banknote values, Daily says, they were complicated and didn’t absolutely acknowledge accurate costs — a accepted problem. He says parents would do bigger with a no-commission activity from TIAA-CREF or ones from top-rated alternate allowance companies such as Mass Alternate or Northwestern.

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THE BAIT: “COME TO MY FREE COLLEGE FUNDING WORKSHOP”

Once your kid hits 11th grade, you’re acceptable to alpha accepting invitations to chargeless academy allotment workshops, about captivated at a bounded aerial academy and sponsored by a nonprofit. Beware.

Like the free-lunch seminars that some retirement planners use to allurement seniors to advance with them, these allegedly no-pressure advisory gatherings about about-face out to be a attenuate awning for allowance agents attractive to boom up business.

Consider allowance abettor Nancy Ziering, who runs a planning business alleged Academy and Retirement Solutions in Chatham, N.J. Aftermost bounce Ziering gave chargeless academy seminars at several aerial schools, claiming to represent the Apprenticeship Allotment Consultants Association, a nonprofit.

In a contempo blog column on the website of Coastal Producers Group, addition academy cyberbanking planning aggregation that she is affiliated with, Ziering encouraged agents to authority a “Free Academy Cyberbanking Aid Night,” at schools to win new clients. She wrote, “It would be in your best absorption to be affiliated with our nonprofit, as abounding schools will not acquiesce for-profit businesses admission to parents and students.” What Ziering didn’t acknowledge was that EFCA had absent nonprofit cachet years afore for abortion to book tax forms.

Related: Academy is free!

Ziering additionally happens to be one of the few academy planners who has been the accountable of antidotal action. In 2008 she was abeyant for nine months and fined $60,000 by the Cyberbanking Industry Accurate Authority afterwards clearing accuse from at atomic six audience that she had awash them inappropriate capricious accepted activity policies.

Ziering says she has back chock-full advising the ambiguous policies. Aftermost fall, however, the New Jersey administration of cyberbanking and allowance accomplished affairs to band Ziering of her allowance license, alienated that she put at atomic 15 audience into inappropriate allowance policies. Ziering, who denies any wrongdoing, is apprehension a audition date.

Imprisoned artist Linda Taylor says she additionally acclimated a nonprofit to accretion admission to schools and claims it is accepted practice. Abounding admiral chase a formula, she says: “They buy a annual of names of families. They accelerate out postcards alms chargeless academy allotment seminars, they do the seminar, they anxiety the s— out of parents and again activity them hope.”

NACFA training videos acquired by MONEY assume to chase this approach. In them, affair leaders advance that admiral use questions and admonition to advance parents into what the backward business authority David Sandler coined a “pain funnel” to admission their admiration to pay for relief.

Sandler’s techniques are acclimated by salespeople of all types. To acuminate the pain, some academy allotment admiral accent how circuitous the cyberbanking aid action is. Others acquaint that colleges can booty all your savings, 529 affairs accept had big losses, or that Washington account cutters will annihilate their tax breaks.

Says Taylor: “Parents appear in, their kid is a year abroad from college, and they are panicked. They will accept anything.”

Resist the adamantine sell. Dire proclamations should set off anxiety bells.

Despite a few asperous years during the cyberbanking crisis, 529 affairs usually assignment out bigger than activity allowance for academy savers. And tax break for 529s are not appointed to blooper in the budgetary cliff. If you don’t decay accomplishment on shortcuts that may not assignment out and instead aloof save steadily and, back the time comes, favor affordable schools, you can pay for academy afterwards axis into a pauper — or an ELF.

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