Let’s be serious – paying for college is terrifying for the majority of families these days.
According to College Board, average college tuition and fees increased by 9% over the last 5 years, making the total cost of college a large chunk of change for most families.
If you have a child heading to college or already there, you are probably looking for ways to save on this enormous expense. One way you may be able to (surprisingly) find some savings is by negotiating college tuition.
You may think that sounds crazy but hear me out..
Fortunately, more and more families consider the cost of a college to be one of the most important factors in their enrollment decision. Having worked with thousands of families on reducing the cost of college, I can proudly say that many students are finally choosing the more affordable option over their “dream school.”
And colleges are realizing that.
Also to your advantage, enrollment rates not only leveled out but actually decreased by 1.4% this past year according to the National Student Clearinghouse, meaning colleges are competing to fill seats.
And in order to compete, many are willing to make concessions when it comes to college tuition costs.
This is great news for you and your family.
So how can you negotiate college tuition? Let’s talk about that.
1. Prepare to appeal your financial aid package to decrease the college tuition
Before marching down to the financial aid office and busting down the door, it helps to gather certain documents, letters and other backup materials to help your case.
It also helps to have a number in mind.
What can you honestly afford? You don’t want to walk in their asking for more money but not having a specific amount in mind. Instead, you want an educated number that you realize is reasonable for your family to afford.
If you don’t think you can afford anything, or paying for college is largely on your student (meaning loans), take a look at what career your child is considering going into. What is the average starting salary for that career? Based on that, how much of a loan payment can they afford? This will give you some room to calculate a figure. Of course, you’ll want to include living expenses in this calculation as well as some buffer before dedicating an amount to loans.
Once you and your child have a number in mind, it is time to collect other documentation that you can use to support your appeal. We will give you specific lists a little later in the post depending on your situation.
2. Start discussions with the proper financial aid officer
While I joked about marching down to the financial aid office and kicking in the door, please do not do that. Most of the time, the people welcoming you are just student volunteers trying to get by.
Instead, look on the university or college’s website for an appeal process. Follow these steps first. Include a letter that explains your argument (more on that in a minute.) If they do not get back to you, follow up with a phone call. You will ultimately want to schedule an appointment with a financial aid officer. Keep track of everyone you talk to so that you can come back to any prior discussions.
When you do speak to someone (read: anyone), approach them respectfully. Angry calls and threatening to enroll your child elsewhere won’t get you anywhere, besides possibly in a hospital with a stroke. Civil discussions will always get you and your child further along.
Begin by asking them how they reached the financial aid package. Try to understand where they are coming from, as this will give you more room to negotiate. Say to them, “Can you please walk me through your calculations? I’d like to discuss why I do not believe these are feasible but want to understand where you are coming from first.”
Lastly, if you are near a deadline, ask for an extension.
3. Understand your options with college tuition and your financial aid package
While some institutions may offer their best option right away, many will hedge their offers, just like a typical negotiation. Typically, discounts come through need-based or merit-based aid.
Need-based Aid Exceptions
If you believe your best bet is to receive need-based support, have backup ready to go to show you cannot afford the package they came up with.
Causes here may include:
- Outstanding medical bills
- Loss of income/job
- Death of spouse
- Multiple children in college at the same time (Including step-siblings that weren’t part of the original application)
- Parents attending college
- Caring for elderly relatives
- Any other major losses that will impact your family or student
Your goal here is to show that your income, assets and savings cannot cover the expected family contribution that they reached. This may be especially important for you since FAFSA is now based on 2 years ago. A lot can change in that time.
Didn't know FAFSA is based on tax information from prior-prior year? Check out our quick article on the new FAFSA changes and 5 ways to maximize financial aid.
Based on FAFSA, it’s nearly impossible to exclude parent information; however, financial aid officers have the discretion to override the system and designate a student as “independent.” This can’t be used just because you don’t want to factor in parental income but, if the family has a history of being unsuitable and the child self-reliant, a letter from a psychologist, religious leader, educator or other officials can push the status to be changed. Again, you will need proof here.
Merit-based Aid Exceptions
There are also a few situations in which merit-based aid can be used to decrease your child’s tuition bill. In this case, you want it to be clear that your child is worth the investment.
Has your child make an improvement in grades or test scores? A senior year boost can help push them into a merit-based package.
Do they play a sport? Athletics may not be able to give out money but they have pull with the financial aid office.
Is your child a first-generation student? Minority? Do they have any disabilities or any other special circumstances that weren’t submitted with the original application? These could all lead to a successful appeal.
You may also include challenging circumstances that may have impacted your child’s school performance. Loss of a family member? Divorce/separation? Disability? You don’t want to make excuses but instead explain the situation and show how hard your child is working to compensate for the negative impact of those events.
Don’t think Ivy’s are out!
One additional point worth mentioning is that many Ivy League institutions do not offer merit scholarships so this may not work on them. You may want to consider other schools that instead do offer merit-based packages; however, even Ivy League schools want to attract the best students so you may be able to use some of the other scenarios to try to receive reduced tuition.
4. Use your ammo as necessary
The next set of “ammo” for negotiating college tuition includes any other offers your child has received. Come with research in hand on the total cost of attendance for all the schools your child has been admitted to. You will also want copies of any other offer letters. Ask the school you are negotiating with if they can close the gap between their institution and more affordable options your child has elsewhere. This includes athletic program offers.
When doing this, explain your student’s excitement to attend their institution but that price is a deciding factor. Have a few specific reasons they want to go there as well as any hopes to stay involved beyond their education such as participating as an alumnus/alumna. Continue to explain that price is key for your family as you don’t want your student to start their life buried in debt.
5. Make the final decision
Ultimately, remember that in most cases, the institution name won’t make or break your child’s future, especially for undergrad. However, being buried in student debt can. If you and your child go in with the mindset that price is the #1 factor, you will naturally negotiate better as they won’t be able to get you to concede by building hype for that institution.
Thank them for considering but understand that they have limitations as well. They can’t go from no aid to a free ride. Be realistic and honest with them. If the result isn’t a huge impact, remember that even a few thousand per year can be a big help, especially if the alternative is borrowing money that would otherwise build interest.
Families have saved tens of thousands of dollars using these methods. Now it’s your turn to try as well.
*If you’ve successfully negotiated your tuition bill, please comment below with your story and any other tips!
As always, there are two sides to making college affordable:
1. Reduce the college bill amount (which this article covered.)
2. Find debt-free money to help pay for the rest.
So here are a few helpful articles to get you started on finding additional funds such as scholarships to help pay for college:
- Related post: WHEN YOUR CHILD SHOULD START APPLYING FOR SCHOLARSHIPS
- Related post: 5 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE SCHOLARSHIP PROCESS
We also frequently hold a free training for parents and students on how to quickly secure scholarships for college. Go to www.thescholarshipsystem.com/freewebinarpst to grab your spot to the next one!