"It's a rip off," said suburban Dallas guidance counselor Patty Sisco. "If you have to pay money to get money, it's a scam."
Sisco said the companies send phony "final notices" and sign-up "deadlines" to intimidate people into buying.
"It's these slick sales tactics that I consider to be extremely unethical, and it's the people who can afford it least who are paying this money," Sisco said.
Mexican immigrant Maria Sanchez and daughter Brenda lost hundreds of dollars before school counselors warned them off the scheme.
"When Brenda told me that it's for nothing ... So it's bad for me, because its hard for me," said Maria Sanchez.
By federal estimates, 350,000 students and parents are defrauded of more than $5 million each year by companies making promises they don't or can't keep - companies like the camera-shy College Funding Center of Dallas, whose owner declined to be interviewed.
And while the company's Web site touts its ties to the Better Business Bureau, the bureau's Dallas office has a file of complaints about the College Funding Center.
In a statement, the College Funding Center defends its service as helping many in "understanding the entire financial aid process"
"We can offer the same kind of service for no charge to the student," said Karen Krause, aid director at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Today, more than half of the students at the Arlington campus get some form of financial help. Krause said her department, like those at most other colleges, are there for every student applying for aid packages.
"If we don't have students, we don't have jobs either," Krause said. "Our whole purpose to be here is to help our students find money to go to school."
With only a 6th grade education herself, Maria Sanchez still wants a college education for daughter Brenda. But a costly lesson she and families of many high school graduates learned is that no one can guarantee a short cut to finding college financial aid - even at a price.