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Negotiating College Costs

There is something about the college process that produces myths about all aspects of admission, chief among them are the “secret sauce” a student needs to get accepted into an “elite” institution, getting recruited for athletic teams and paying for college. No doubt this is exacerbated by the extreme competition to get accepted to a “name” college and the confidentiality–some would say secrecy– that surrounds admission.

As a College Admissions Consultant, I spend a good deal of time debunking myths while working with students. The reality is that college admissions and all that it encompasses is much more complex than it was for earlier generations. Some articles, as I have written about before, are too simplistic in their description of issues and their solutions.

Applying to colleges and paying for them does not lend itself to a “one size fits all” plan. This article from the NY Times, I believe, is going to confuse people regarding paying for college. It just skims the surface of a complex issue and it is conflating both merit and need based financial aid.

Need based financheckbook and calculatorcial aid is determined by the financial situation of the student and family. Colleges can use one or many financial forms to determine how much money they expect the family to be responsible for.

Some colleges use only the FAFSA, which is used to determine the EFC (Expected Family Contribution) and the need for federal aid. Some colleges also use the FAFSA to determine their institutional aid (money from their college). Other colleges require the CSS PROFILE in addition to the FAFSA. The PROFILE will determine how much institutional aid the college will allot and its formula includes some assets the FAFSA does not.  And still other colleges require both of those forms and their own form and a complete copy of the tax returns. Even so, not all colleges will come up with the exact same financial aid award for a particular family; sometimes it varies from college to college. Need based aid comes in basically three forms: Grants (money that does not have to be paid back), Loans (must be paid back) and Work Study.  It is crucial here for families to carefully compare all costs and college aid offers and determine the actual price paid by the student and family. It is not always easy to compare these offers as there is no standard form for this, even though Senator Franken of Minnesota introduced legislation to this end in 2012.

If a family feels that the need based aid is not sufficient, they can certainly ask the college to take a second look. And, as this article correctly points out, it is reasonable and recommended to ask for a second look when the forms do not reflect the current financial situation—such as a recent job loss or other big financial change that the forms did not capture. Families should also be prepared to provide documentation. However, the idea that one can successfully “haggle” without a valid reason and expect a lot more money is misleading.

The other type of money a student may be offered is merit aid. Merit aid is mainly based on grades, strength of curriculum and test scores. Some colleges offer merit money to a percentage of students who are at the top of the group applying as an incentive to attend. For some public universities this helps keep the high flyers from leaving the state. For other colleges, getting accomplished students to attend helps raise their profile.

If a student wants to ask for more merit aid, they certainly can. Of course, it helps if the student can give the college a reason. If the student had an uptick in grades in the time since the transcript was submitted, or if there are new standardized test scores the college has not seen, these should be sent. Same for a new award earned or new information related to research the student is conducting.

And if another college has offered more merit money, they can try and use that as leverage by providing a copy of the award. However, it is wrong to assume that these always result in more money. Some colleges give no merit aid, so if your child was awarded a merit scholarship from another college, it changes nothing. Other colleges may decide that the college that offered more money is not at their level of competition and they won’t match it. And, some colleges will come up a little or even match the award.

It is also important to remember that merit awards come with strings attached, as do all scholarships from colleges. The student needs to maintain a certain GPA and meet other conditions while attending the college to keep receiving the award. Always read and understand the fine print.

The idea that one should try and get the best financial deal for their student and family is good advice. However, like all things related to the college search and application process, there are no guarantees and haggling may not turn out as successfully as implied.

Jon Boeckenstedt, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management and Marketing at DePaul University summed this up nicely, “Of course people attempt to negotiate all the time, with varying degrees of success.  Whether it’s worth it or not is anyone’s guess; if you’re just looking for a lower price somewhere, it’s probably worth it.  If you’re looking for a lower price at your target college, it’s less likely.  If you’re looking for your first choice to be the lowest cost, it’s less likely still.”

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Janet Rosier