X How to Negotiate What You Pay for College
Posted on December 23, 2018

How to Negotiate What You Pay for College


If you have a high school senior, they are likely excited about getting acceptance letters in the coming New Year. And, if awards are offered – what I call “free money” – most families will take those offers at face value and accept them outright. 

The Never Pay Retail approach is to view those initial offers as a stepping-stone and an opportunity, because the student can reach out to the school they’re most interested in and ask if it’s willing to improve its award based on offers made by competing schools. 

After all, if the other offers are stronger, we owe it to ourselves to at least have the conversation. 

Don’t worry. This exercise is not the same as haggling over the price of a new car. There is a certain finesse and decorum that can work in a family’s favor if we allow the strength of the other offers to do the work for us. 

There’s no guarantee of success with this approach, but it offers more hope for success than the “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit” mindset. You may find the college wants your student as much as your student wants them. 

Another area for hope is what many families don’t understand – college financial aid departments have a period where they wait to see what aid is “coming back into inventory.” 

This is the money the school offered to students who ultimately decided to go elsewhere. There is a chance that your student could, upon a second look, be awarded money that was previously earmarked for another student.

If you’ve taken my previous advice of choosing the college that’s the “right fit” for your student that lands him or her in the top 25 percent of the freshman class, your negotiation has an even higher chance for success. 

Remember, colleges are constantly trying to increase their rankings and fill out their freshman rosters to meet that goal, so this works in your favor.  

There are three things parents and students should communicate while negotiating what they pay for college: 

  1. Students need to express that this school is their number one choice, while parents should stress that they want their child to go to the most affordable option.
  1. Both parents and students should inform the school that the parents can’t support their number one school choice financially at current rates. 
  1. Students should let the school know that if they can match the competing institution’s financial offer, not only can they come there, the parents wholeheartedly support the student enrolling.

Play the game until the decision deadline. 

The first offer presented by a college may not be its best offer, and families are well-served by keeping the most interested parties in play so they can compare proposals. 

Chapter 11 of my book “Never Pay Retail for College” discusses award negotiating in greater detail, which you can check out by clicking on the menu above. Learn more about it here.