College Financial Aid: Negotiating the Best Deal

The other day, a friend told me an interesting story. Her daughter had just gotten into her pick of colleges, but her top-choice school wasn't offering as much financial aid as the schools that were a bit lower on her list. So she was wondering – should she pick up the phone and called the financial aid office of School #1 and say: "I really want to come here, but the tuition is just too hard to swing. Can you do better?"

As a mom with her own high school senior in the house, this story got me thinking: Is negotiating with aid offices common? Does it really work? Over the past week, I reached out to some experts and learned that the answers to those questions are "it's hard to say," and "it depends."

If you and your child are looking at aid packages that are less than you had hoped for, here's what you need to know before you call the school to make a fuss.Don't call it negotiation. "Colleges are not car dealerships," Mark Kantrowitz, creator of, likes to say. "This idea you can haggle is not all that accurate. Very few colleges do anything that way. Instead, it's very structured and policy-driven. In most cases, negotiation is professional judgment." Professional judgment refers to a process whereby a college can make adjustments to an aid package if unusual circumstances (a job loss mid-year, abnormally high medical costs, etc.) were not reflected on the FAFSA or aid application. If something severely impacted your income last year and the college does not know about it, you could be a candidate for consideration under this process.Stick to the facts. It's also important to understand that "the entire [financial aid] process is driven by documentation," says Kantrowitz. If your financial situation has changed, the schools is "going to want copies of documentation: for a job loss, a copy of the pink slip, copy of the notice of unemployment benefits." Peter Van Buskirk, founder of "The Admissions Game" program and former dean of admissions for Franklin & Marshall College, echoes this sentiment: "The appeal needs to be made from the basis of fact, not emotion," he says. "The parent that goes in full of fire and brimstone, nothing's going to happen there. If there's a reasonable presentation of information... and they can get this kid [to enroll] by making an adjustment, they'll reserve the right to make that judgment."

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Reframe the conversation. If School #1 offered you $10,000 and School #2 offered you $20,000, don't wave the competing offer in the face of School #1. Instead, focus on dollar amounts so you're not bringing another school into the conversation. "Typically the notion of haggling is not well received," says Don Fraser, director of education and training at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "If you say, 'I want to go here, could you offer me X amount of dollars,' that's the kind of conversation they're more willing to engage in."Get rid of high expectations. Just about everyone I spoke with told me that there's no harm in calling a college and asking them if there's anything more they can do. However, the key is to be polite about it, and lose all visions of a $15,000 adjustment. "It can't hurt to have the conversation, but don't go into the conversation with high levels of expectation or entitlement, because that's off-putting," says Van Buskirk. "[Parents] can paint themselves in a corner by saying, 'My kid won't come unless....' And then the institution calls the bluff. It's important to resist the impulse to give into ultimatums."With Maggie McGrath

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