negotiating college scholarships

Most of us wouldn’t even consider buying a car or a house without negotiating the price, but when it comes to making another major purchase—namely, a college education—negotiation tends not to cross our minds. You may be surprised to learn, however, that many colleges—whether they advertise their flexibility or not—are open to negotiating their price by increasing the scholarship discount they offer. As a College Coach finance educator, I recommend most of the families I work with at least try to negotiate for additional scholarship funding. Not every negotiation attempt will be successful, but here are some tips to maximize your chances of increasing that scholarship offer:

  1. Contact the college’s Admissions Office—they control the recruitment scholarship funding at most colleges. If, however, need-based aid is also in play, don’t hesitate to bring the Financial Aid Office into the loop as well.
  2. Put your request for additional assistance in writing. Putting someone on the spot in person or on the phone can backfire. Lay out your case in writing (email or snail mail is fine) and let it get to the appropriate college representative, who can then act as your advocate within the school, rather than your adversary. These requests sometimes need to go before a committee, and you want to have someone in your corner in that committee room.
  3. Having said that, don’t hesitate to follow up by phone if you haven’t heard anything within a week or two. You don’t want to let yourself end up lost in somebody’s inbox or under a pile on somebody’s desk. College admissions officers are people, so putting a face (or at least a voice) to the request can’t hurt.
  4. Or can it? Tread lightly when demanding admissions officers’ time. College admissions officers, particularly at this time of year, are not just people, but busy people, so be careful to avoid coming off as pushy or annoying.
  5. Let the college know that you would love to attend their school, but it is just the money that is holding you back. If you are negotiating with multiple schools, be sure to personalize your requests to each; form letters do not go over well.
  6. Share any new accolades received since submitting your initial application for admission. High fall term grades, new awards or honors, or increased SAT or ACT scores can be the justification needed for increasing a scholarship offer. Some colleges have a strict formula when it comes to awarding scholarships, and a slightly higher test score could bump you up to the next scholarship level.
  7. Introduce the threat (as politely as possible) that you may attend elsewhere. If you have better offers from other colleges, include copies of those scholarship offers. Rather than demanding a college match another school’s price, a request to help “bridge the cost gap” may get you further. Giving the impression that a small amount of give on the school’s end will make a big difference to your enrollment decision can be a useful tactic.
  8. Whether it’s a negotiation or not (and it is), don’t call it that. Colleges don’t like to draw an analogy between themselves and a used car lot (no matter how apropos that analogy is). Questions like, “Are there any additional scholarships that I could apply for?” or “Might there be additional assistance available to make my attendance more feasible?” tend to go farther than “Is that tuition negotiable?”

However you approach the scholarship negotiation, there’s very little downside to making the attempt. The worst a college will do is say “no.” That’s it. They won’t rescind your admission. They won’t take away money they’ve already awarded you. They’ll just say “no,” and you’ve wasted the half hour it took you to put together a negotiation letter. You may be surprised, however, at how often colleges say “yes,” and throw a few thousand dollars your way if they think that’s what is needed to lure you away from another school and secure your enrollment.

It’s all too easy to feel powerless in the college admissions process—your fate is in someone else’s hands and, with ever-decreasing admission rates at the most selective colleges broadcast all over media, the focus tends to fall solely on the competition among students to get into college. Do not overlook, however, the competition on the other side of the desk—the competition among colleges to recruit the best students to fill their classes. Use this competition to your advantage in negotiating for the best price for your college education. My favorite part of my job as a college finance educator is encouraging families to embrace the power that they have in the college admissions process.  As a student, you choose where to apply, you choose where to enroll, you have the power to say “yes” or “no” to any college’s offer. If my time working at colleges taught me nothing else, it taught me that colleges recognize the purchasing power of their consumers—students and parents. It’s about time for families to recognize that power as well.

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Written by Shannon Vasconcelos
Shannon Vasconcelos is a college finance expert at College Coach. Before joining College Coach, she was a Senior Financial Aid Officer at Tufts University and Boston University.