Negotiating Your Out-of Pocket College Cost

Published by Wendy Nelson on

1317230_29811116Can you negotiate college cost?

Yes, and you should.  Most schools have some wiggle room with their merit and
need-based offers.  While the college choice process isn’t really like buying a car, there are some similarities.  You can start the process once the school sends you a summary of your financial aid package.  If you didn’t file the FAFSA, your package will only include any merit scholarships the school has offered.

How do you negotiate a financial aid offer?

To begin with, make sure you know what you can afford.  Look at all sources:  college savings accounts, parent cash flow that can go towards college costs, student earnings, etc.  Use a costing tool or spreadsheet to lay out the whole picture.  Then add in any scholarships and grants offered by the school.  Here are some good tools to use for this:

Once you have the whole picture laid out, you are ready to contact your admissions counselor or financial aid officer.  If it isn’t clear who to talk to, I would start by asking your admissions counselor who you should contact with financial aid package questions.

Before making contact, make sure you are prepared for the conversation.  I highly recommend reading the optimization tips for negotiating on the Tuition Coach website.  If you aren’t already signed up for Tuition Coach, you will need to create an account.  It is free and I have found it very helpful.  You can compare financial aid offers and the site will grade them and give you explanations as to why an offer was good or bad.

You will have much more leverage to negotiate if your student is in the top 25% of admitted students at a school.  This may be a little difficult to determine, but looking at GPA and SAT/ACT scores compared to the school’s published middle 50% is a good start.

I had very nice conversations with my daughter’s admission counselor and financial aid officer at her #2 choice college after seeing the difference between their offer and the offers from her other top schools.  As recommended by Tuition Coach, I did not bring up a comparison of schools.  However, the admission counselor came out and asked me what other schools were offering.  That gave me the “in” to lay it all on the line.  They were both very understanding and interested in working with me so that their school would remain in the running.