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Negotiate Your College Tuition Costs (yes it can be done)

With the exception of buying a home, paying for a college education may be one of the largest investments you'll ever make. These tips can help you negotiate and lower the costs.

While student loans, scholarships, and grants can help with college funding, there's another option you might not have considered.

It may be possible to negotiate a discount on college tuition or bargain for a better financial aid package. Here’s what you need to know.

Is College Tuition Negotiable?

While it's not widely advertised by schools, the short answer is yes, it's possible to work with a college or university to get a better deal on tuition, fees, and other costs of attendance.

This is something you may be able to do whether enrolling in a public or private university. In fact, private universities lead the way with discounted tuition rates for the 2018-19 academic year, according to a study from the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO). According to the report, tuition discounts are often used as a way to attract students and boost enrollment.

The amount of money you could negotiate from the tuition bill ultimately depends on the school. But you may be able to lower the cost by anywhere from 5% to 15% through negotiations. Assuming you're paying $15,000 a year for tuition, that's a savings of $750 to $2250. Over four years, that savings could add up to as much as $9,000.

How to Negotiate College Tuition Costs

If you're interested in bargaining for a better deal on tuition and other costs of attendance, there are two ways you can approach it. The first is to simply ask for a discounted rate for tuition, fees, room and board or any other costs you're paying to attend the school.

This may be easier to do at a school that's shown a willingness to extend discounts to students to encourage them to enroll. Williams College, for instance, announced a 15% tuition discount for the 2020-21 academic year in light of the financial impacts associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you want to ask for a discount outright, the first step is knowing who to contact. Typically, this is going to be the school's financial aid office. You may, however, also need to contact the school's admissions office. You can call, but you may get a better response by sending a polite, well-worded letter or email.

When contacting the school to ask for a discount on tuition, fees or other costs, be prepared to make a strong case for why they should cut you a break. For example, if you have an outstanding academic or athletic record, those things could help you leverage a tuition reduction, especially if other schools have expressed interest in you as a student.

Also, be sure to mention why you need a discount. If the reasons are financial, such as a job loss or an illness that left you in debt, make sure to include that when making your arguments to the school.

Appeal Financial Aid Awards

If you've tried to negotiate a discount on tuition with little success, don't give up yet. The other option for saving money on tuition costs is to appeal the financial aid award letter.

Before the new semester starts, schools send out award letters explaining how much aid a student qualifies for. This number is determined by how much funding the school has to give, as well as your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC number is drawn from the information provided on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

If you've received a financial aid award letter and it isn't enough to help pay for the full cost of attendance, you can appeal it. Again, you'll want to write a letter to the school's financial aid office, with a copy sent to the admissions office explaining:

  • Why you're asking for more financial aid
  • Whether your appeal is based on financial need, the individual merits of your student, or both
  • Any other financial aid awards your student may have received from competing schools

When drafting this letter, remember to be polite and courteous. And be sure to include any supporting documentation to help support your claim.

For example, if your request for a larger financial aid package is need-based, you might include copies of bank statements or pay stubs to show that you're unable to meet your EFC as determined by the FAFSA. For merit-based requests, you might include copies of academic records or documentation of their athletic or artistic achievements to show why they'd be a valuable addition to the school.

Remember, it's entirely up to the school to decide whether to honor your request for more aid. It's possible that your appeal may be unsuccessful the first time around, especially if you’re an incoming freshman. The school may need to see how you perform academically for a semester or two before expanding their aid package. Even if your appeal was unsuccessful the first time, don't give up on making appeals for future academic years. You may be able to make a stronger argument for more aid based on future merits.

Ask About Other Financial Aid Options

If you've tried reaching out to the school to ask for a lower tuition rate or a bigger financial aid package but hit a dead end, consider what else you can do to make college more affordable.

Specifically, get in touch with the financial aid office to ask about scholarships or grants that you may have overlooked. If the school offers scholarships or grants, it's possible that there may be some funding available. You could also ask whether work-study might be an option. Work-study lets students work to earn more to pay for school; eligibility is need-based.

Federal and private student loans can also help pay for school, as can tapping into an individual retirement account. While you may want to leave these options as a last resort, it's important to leave no stone unturned when determining how to pay for college.

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