With tuition sharply rising at public universities in California, thanks to the ongoing budget crisis, parents are dipping deeper into bank accounts and students are taking on more debt than ever. There’s no refuge in private schools: Their tuition is going up, too.

But that’s proving a boon to an emerging class of consultants: those who specialize in financial aid for students.

Dennis Stewart started his Westlake Village consultancy, Educational Funding Solutions, 10 years ago when the University of California charged about $4,000 for tuition. With the system charging $10,302 for the upcoming school year, he said, families can’t afford to make any mistakes.

“I worked in the financial services industry, and … I made mistakes on my own kids’ paperwork and they cost me for years,” Stewart said. “The (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) has 135 questions. The CSS Financial Aid Profile has 791 questions and can take three or four times longer to fill out.”

Families generally hire Stewart during a child’s junior year in high school and pay a flat $1,895 fee for diagnostic tests that help students pick a major and preferred school, and to evaluate the family’s finances. The flat fee carries families through acceptance and the first financial aid package. If the package comes back with a low number, Stewart will try to get it sweetened.

In addition to paperwork help, Stewart advises families on the best ways to allocate investment and retirement accounts to avoid being penalized by colleges. He said his business has been growing faster since the start of the California budget crisis several years ago, and he now advises more than 60 families annually.

But do parents really need the help? It depends on whom you ask.

Matt Fissinger, director of undergraduate admissions at Loyola Marymount University, agreed that a growing fraction of families are relying on such consultants, but he said some consultants may oversell their services.

“Families can be led to believe that they can qualify for programs that they would be eligible for otherwise,” he said.

However, Steve and Linda Adams were happy to give a testimonial for Stewart, who assisted the Ventura County couple to boost a poor financial aid offer from USC for their daughter, Claire, who graduated this year from Oak Park High School.

“Dennis helped explain why there was such a large gap between USC and other schools,” said Steve Adams, who added the package ultimately improved by $22,000.

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