4 keys for negotiating a better college aid offer

When it comes to bargaining, most Americans know they can negotiate on a home, a car or an appliance. But what about college, a big-ticket item that could leave you in six figures worth of debt for decades?  

Chances are many families are cowed by this possibility, and I suspect many don’t even bother to ask for more money in college aid packages. Fortunately, you have more leverage than you think, but you have to know how to push back when initial aid offers are put on the table. 

There’s certainly an art to netting more assistance, although no college will improve a package unless you’re diligent, rational and press your case. Now’s the time to get savvy if you’re on the fence about which school to attend. 

Officially, if you ask any college admissions office in public whether they’ll match or beat aid offers from other colleges, they’ll tell you no. Yet with more than 7,000 colleges in the U.S., there’s plenty of competition for the best students. I’ve seen it in my state, where the top students are highly recruited by a number of out-of-state schools. Many, if not most of them, receive generous scholarships or tuition discounts.

According to Mike Brown, managing director of Nitro, an online source for college financing, since families were allowed to submit their FAFSA aid forms earlier this year -- Oct. 1, 2016, instead of Jan. 1, 2017 -- it has created “a bigger window for considering all of their financial options.” (Note: If you haven’t submitted a FAFSA yet, get cracking. Most colleges won’t process aid requests without it.)

Once you have aid offers to consider, your first move is psychological: Remember that you’re empowered to negotiate. You won’t know what the best offers are until you press for them. Here are four essential steps for doing that, according to Brown:

  • Contact aid offices directly and ask for better offers that substitute grants for loans. Nearly every school can offer you a package of loans, which you should avoid. “If one school’s financial aid package makes it more affordable than another, “ Brown said, “remember you can call the financial aid office of the other school, let them know what you received and see if they can match the offer.” People do this with cars all the time by getting dealers to compete. There’s nothing distasteful about doing this with college. A lot of money is at stake.
  • Know what you’re being offered. Details are critical. Some schools may offer work-study as part of the package or other assistance. “It’s important you understand what the [total] offer truly is, which often can involve calling financial aid offices for details on terms you may not understand,” said Brown. “‘Self-help’ is often one: It could mean the income a student is expected to earn, yet separate from work-study. You might qualify for minimum wage work-study -- but you might get a better offer from an off-campus job. You may or may not want to consider this as part of your overall package when deciding among colleges.”
  • Appeal the aid package if it’s inadequate. “Ask for your financial aid award package to be ‘reevaluated,’” Brown said. “This can occur via the ‘Special Circumstances form’ -- available from any financial aid office -- to update financial information. Also see if there are more resources they can recommend (i.e.: private scholarships you didn’t qualify for previously when you had less financial need).” Nothing will happen unless you make the effort to ask for an appeal or “professional review.” 
  • Ask for everything that’s available in the form of scholarships. Since college financial aid can be a black box process, it’s unlikely you’ll know which other forms of grant-based aid are available. There can be many pleasant surprises. “Often, schools have funds set aside from their own scholarship and grant money, intended to attract good students who are considering other options,” noted Brown. “Often, students who are on the fence about their college decision -- who have also mentioned another school giving them a better offer in previous conversations -- may qualify for this money.”

Don’t think the aid process is over once you’ve accepted a college’s offer. Thousands of outside scholarships are available on the local, state and national level. You can start applying for them in junior year of high school. 

Parents, a note of caution: Don’t call up a college’s aid department and start berating them over the meager amount of aid in their offer. That won’t get you anywhere. Submit all of your appeals in writing.

And if a dream or “safety” school doesn’t offer a workable aid package, you still have plenty of options. Commuter, community and “satellite” campuses of big universities charge tuition at a fraction of the cost of four-year residential campuses. 

Above all, make a careful, reasoned argument in writing about why your family needs more aid. Keep focused on your goal: You want to obtain as much grant-based aid as possible. 

The more loans you can jettison from the initial offer -- replaced with scholarships -- the better off your graduate will be well into the future. 

  • John Wasik

    John Wasik is the author of The Debt-Free Degree and 15 other books. He writes and speaks regularly on personal finance issues throughout North America.