Instead of leaving you to track down student scholarships or fill out FAFSA forms yourself, companies will eagerly do it for you for a fee. Now, thousands of Minnesotans saddled with student debt are companies' latest targets: For a cost, they'll consolidate your federal loans for you.

As college graduates' average debt rises and U.S. legislators gridlock over a contentious debate on increasing loan rates this summer, companies are emerging that promise to save borrowers money by consolidating federal loans.

In northern Minnesota, one 80-year-old New York Mills woman was among the first clients of a new California company doing just that. National Student Loan Solutions in Tustin, Calif., called her last month with an offer to consolidate $7,000 in federal loans she's helping her grandson pay off from St. John's University. She didn't waste any time, sending the $395 upfront fee that day.

"When somebody says they're going to reduce your payments, gee, why wouldn't you think that would be good?" said the woman, who declined to be named.

It would be illegal for National Student Loan Solutions to charge upfront fees as a debt settlement company, but experts say that it's allowed for a debt consulting company. However, financial aid experts caution against paying for something borrowers can do for free online themselves.

"This is the first I've heard of it," said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success, which runs the Project on Student Debt. "It's quite disturbing that someone is trying to create a market for paying substantial amounts for something that's for free."

The Federal Trade Commission, which has long warned consumers about companies that charge upfront fees, advises that borrowers carefully consider whether it's worth the benefit of paying for an educational service, adding the advice to new, not-yet-released FTC educational material.

With more people leaving college in debt, experts say the industry could be ripe for an influx in these companies. In Minnesota, 70 percent of state college students were in debt in 2010, the fifth-highest percentage in the United States, according to the Project on Student Debt.

In New York Mills, the woman contacted by National Student Loan Solutions had second thoughts about whether it was worth the fee and $39 monthly cost, declining to submit a contract.

"I'm an 80-year-old woman, and it's hard for me to comprehend all this stuff," she said.

That's exactly why owner Hugh Adams said he created the company four months ago, helping borrowers fill out lengthy paperwork to consolidate federal loans -- not lending or modifying loans. He said the upfront fee is needed to maintain the Orange County business.

"What I've done is created nothing different than H&R Block," Adams said. "We're simply a consulting firm. The general public doesn't know what's available to them. We just push the paperwork process through the bureaucracy of the Department of Education."

This month, the California BBB opened a file on National Student Loan Solutions, also known as Nationwide Processing Center, after an inquiry about it, rating the company an "F," despite having received zero complaints, because it charges advance fees and hasn't provided background information. But the California attorney general's office said that its upfront fees are legal, because it's not a debt settlement company.

When Whistleblower told him about the New York Mills woman's story, Adams refunded her money.

"I don't have anything to hide from anyone ... I'm not trying to get rich," he said, adding that he, too, worries about other companies ruining their reputation. "I've most definitely found a niche. My biggest fear is having crooks in the business."

So far, he said he has about 120 clients nationwide and has consolidated 20 loans. Adams, 53, said that, as the father of three children in their 20s with student loans, he started the company after spending three months researching loan consolidation and having previous experience in auto and mortgage finance. He now advertises on TV and radio stations or contacts people directly.

He admits people can go online to do the work for free themselves, but he said it can be confusing and, for a fee, his company will complete it sooner.

At both the Minnesota Office of Higher Education and the University of Minnesota, experts advise against paying fees for educational services like scholarship searches or filling out FAFSA forms. In Boston, National Consumer Law Center lawyer Deanne Loonin runs a student loan advice site and has started to hear from borrowers about similar federal student loan consolidation businesses.

"What I'm telling everyone now is be very wary," Loonin said. "I'm worried that we're going to see similar things as with foreclosures and credit cards. We're already starting to see it."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141; Twitter: @kellystrib