applying to universities

The days are getting longer, Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow, and spring will be here before you know it, which means it’s the time of year when parents of high school seniors are asking us: “Can I go back and ask the college for more scholarship money?” The answer is a resounding yes. If your student has received college acceptances and offers of merit scholarship money, now is a good time to compare those awards and craft a plan to go back and ask their top choice(s) for additional funding.

A word about timing: Colleges operate on different admission and scholarship timelines, so your student may not have heard from everyone yet. You’ll want to know your student’s full range of options as you plan your strategy, so wait until your child has received all of their decisions before you ask for more. As long as your student hasn’t applied under a binding Early Decision program, they have until the National Candidate Reply Date of May 1 to make a final decision.

Here are our top five things to do—and not to do—as you approach this endeavor.

Do:

Write a letter. While your first instinct may be to pick up the phone and call someone at the college to try to get a better award, our advice is to write a letter first. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, when you call, you’re pretty unlikely to get a person who actually has the power to make a decision. And second, colleges have a process for considering requests, which often includes a committee comprised of representatives from both the admission and financial aid offices. You want your request to get full consideration.

So, who do you write to? Since you’re asking for a merit scholarship increase, you’ll write to the admission office, as opposed to a request for reconsideration of need-based aid eligibility, which is written to the financial aid office. If your child has been working with a particular admission officer, then write to that person. If that person isn’t in a position to make a decision, they’ll forward it on. They know your student the best because they’ve read their application and recruited them, so you want them as an advocate! If your child has not worked with a particular person then address your letter to the Director of Admission.

In your letter you can certainly indicate that you will call to follow up if you haven’t heard anything back in a reasonable period of time. This is a busy time of year for college admission offices, so 10 days to two weeks would be considered polite.

Let them know if anything has changed. Have your child’s test scores improved since they applied for admission? Any new awards or accolades? Or maybe their fall quarter/semester GPA is a bit higher than their cumulative GPA. By all means, point this out! You want to give the college any reason you can to give your student some more money.

Include a copy of other offers. If you have offers from other colleges that are better than the school you are writing to, definitely share a copy of the award with your request. Colleges like to see what their competitors are doing, and they also want to verify your claim that another school has made themselves more affordable.

A couple of words of caution here: When you present another school’s scholarship award, make sure you have compared apples to apples. Just because a school has offered a larger scholarship doesn’t mean they will be cheaper. Be sure to subtract each school’s scholarship amount from their direct costs (tuition, fees, room and board) to compare the “net price” of each school. Also, when you present the other schools’ awards, don’t come right out and ask for it to be matched; that can be seen as too aggressive. Simply point out that School X has made themselves more manageable for your family, and you’re wondering if School Y can do anything more to help.

Send in your best negotiator. Remember, this is all about where your child wants to go to college. If they are up to the task, have them write the letter, or at the very least, help you write it. They can describe why they’re excited to attend the college, talk about the fantastic things they want to accomplish there, and then express their concerns about affordability. It will end up a much more authentic request than if you (the parent) write the letter on your own.

And while it might be difficult for some high school seniors, if you feel yours can handle it, have them also take care of the follow up phone call or meeting. Colleges want to see students who are invested in the process, and this is a great way for them to demonstrate their commitment and passion for the school, which in turn, may tug on the heartstrings of the decision maker(s).

Be realistic. In our work with families in recent years, the average increase in scholarship aid we have seen students receive when they go back to ask for more is in the range of $2000-$3000 per year. Unless your family has had some significant change in financial circumstances (which is covered in our recent blog post about appealing a financial aid award), you shouldn’t expect a huge increase in a scholarship aid when you ask for an increase. There’s a reason the school awarded your student what they did, and while they may have a bit of wiggle room, they usually won’t make drastic changes.

Also, be aware of the “marketplace” of higher education. Simply put, the reason that schools offer merit scholarships is to attract students to their institution. The more selective a program or a college is, the less likely they are to have to increase awards (or even award scholarships in the first place) to fill their class. Using a generous scholarship from a less selective institution or the lower price of a public institution to try to get money from a more (or highly) selective college or university usually doesn’t work. And while I hate to generalize, it’s also true that private colleges and universities are more likely to make adjustments to a scholarship than a public university.

Don’t:

Deposit or commit to attending the institution. The whole idea of this request is to create the idea, however nicely, that your child has other options and may choose to attend a different institution that is more affordable. You lose all of that leverage if you send in an enrollment deposit or your student otherwise commits to enrolling. Your student has until May 1 to decide where to enroll– take advantage of that timeline, and know that colleges are carefully watching their deposits to see how they compare to previous years. We’ve even heard of a few institutions who have increased existing awards (without being asked!) a few days before May 1 in an effort to boost their lagging yield. Don’t lose out on those kinds of opportunities by depositing too early.

Send a form letter. It’s tempting to do a web search for a “scholarship negotiation letter,” duplicate whatever template you find, and send it to each school. Don’t do this! Colleges can spot a form letter from a mile away (remember, they’re receiving hundreds of requests each year). Write a different letter for each school, and let your student help (see above) so the language is authentic and targeted.

Call it negotiation. Yes, we know what you’re doing is negotiating. But colleges don’t like to think of it that way; it makes them feel like they’re selling used cars instead of a quality education. Find other ways to say what you’re asking for: “Is there any way for you to offer additional assistance?” or, “Are there any additional scholarships available?” will be viewed more kindly than a direct request to match another college’s award or “negotiate” a better price.

Be too pushy or demanding. I know you won’t do this on purpose, but it’s important to consider the tone of the letter. There’s that old adage about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar, and that certainly applies here. Be grateful for what’s already been awarded, be positive and excited about the institution, and try to convey that you and your student are fully engaged and willing to sacrifice to make this work. Avoid any hint that you feel your child is “entitled” to scholarship money—the college is fully aware of your student’s profile and offered their initial award accordingly.

Be afraid. Asking for more money will not cause the college to rescind their offer of admission. The worst thing that will happen is that their answer will be “no.” You have nothing to lose by trying, and at least a few thousand dollars to gain!

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Written by Kathy Ruby
Kathy Ruby is a member of College Coach’s team of college finance experts. Before joining College Coach, Kathy was as a Senior Financial Aid Officer at St. Olaf College and Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.