5 Expert Tips for Negotiating the Cost of College (Don’t Miss #2!)

Right about now, the high school seniors in your life are probably more excited than ever before to check their mailboxes.

Although the fat envelopes contain exciting news — you, yes you, are going to college! — they can sometimes yield disappointment, too.

That’s all I received in financial aid? It’s going to cost me HOW much?

If you plan to attend college in the next few years, keep reading.

Here are five expert tips for reducing the cost of college before — and after — you’re accepted.  

1. Make Your Application Shine

Few of these techniques will work if you have low test scores and a low GPA. As with any type of negotiation, you need to have something the other party wants: in this case, a high-achieving student.

Craig McMahon knew this long before his daughter filled out her application forms.

Not only did he ensure she attended a high school with a “vibe of achievement in academics,” he and his wife also refrained from watching TV and using social media on weeknights to create a “perfect homework environment.”

His daughter ended up graduating from high school with a 4.25 GPA. When she applied to Arizona State University, she was invited to the honors college, which is reserved for the top 5% of students.

“That’s when the scholarships came to her,” McMahon explains. She received a full ride, and McMahon now teaches a course on his family’s strategy.

(For more on scholarships, check out this article to find out how this woman helped her son win $100,000.)

2. Know the Numbers

Didn’t receive the aid you were expecting? Want to play hardball with your college’s financial aid office?

Hans Hanson, founder of College Logic and author of Dissecting the Big Business of College, has some advice that might just blow your mind.

“Financial aid offices report to me that only one in 100 families knows how [to negotiate],” says Hanson. “It’s not calling up and complaining about costs; rather, it’s knowing their numbers and using them.”

The key number you need to know? The college’s “percentage of need met,” which you can find with a simple search at College Data.

Here’s why that number’s so important: When you fill out the FAFSA, the government determines your expected family contribution (EFC). The difference between that number and a college’s cost is your “demonstrated need.” And each college promises to fulfill a certain percentage of that.

It’s complicated, I know, but stick with me — this example from Hanson will help illustrate the point.

College XYZ

  • Percentage of need met: 75%
  • Cost per year: $50,000
  • Your EFC (what the FAFSA says your family can afford): $30,000
  • Your demonstrated need (gap between cost and EFC): $20,000

Since College XYZ says it meets 75% of demonstrated need, you should expect an award of $15,000.

“If your award is less than $15,000,” Hanson says, “then you can appeal based on your award being less than the college’s stated percentage of need-met. You appeal to get your fair share.”

Smart, right? So don’t just call up the financial aid office and complain about the cost; it’s heard that before. Arm yourself with information, and you’ve got a much better shot at receiving additional aid.

3. Appeal to the Admissions Office

At the financial aid office, you can only negotiate need-based aid; you can’t request a bigger merit scholarship.

The place to do that? Admissions.

After receiving an acceptance, Hanson suggests telling the admissions office what it’ll take to get you enrolled.

“The admissions office has a job to do — and that’s to convert your acceptance into an enrollment,” explains Hanson. To incentivize you, it has one tool at its disposal: merit scholarships.

When negotiating with the admissions office, the number to know is the college’s conversion rate, or the percentage of accepted students who enroll. (These are available on College Data.)

“The lower the college’s conversion rate, the more it needs to use merit awards to incentivize families to enroll,” explains Hanson.  

As an example, he highlights two schools comparable in cost, quality, location and culture: Marist College and Quinnipiac University.

Marist College

  • Acceptance rate: 45%
  • Conversion rate: 35%

Quinnipiac University

  • Acceptance rate: 70%
  • Conversion rate: 15%

Because “it needs to offer higher scholarships [to get] its desired level of enrolled students,” Hanson says the average scholarship from Quinnipiac is double that from Marist.

But, of course, the school will never tell you that.

“If parents aren’t savvy to this, they’ll pay extra to the college’s delight,” says Hanson. “It’s just the fact.”

4. Use Other Scholarships as Leverage

Another strategy to use at the admissions office involves some healthy competition.  

Did you get a bigger scholarship from a comparable school? Use it as leverage. Just note this is a formal appeal process, and you’ll need to show documentation of the higher offer(s).

Recently, Hanson says one of his clients received a $14,000 scholarship from their number-one college, and a $25,000 scholarship from a comparable one.

“Upon submitting an appeal with an attached scholarship of $25,000 from the other college, the preferred college increased their scholarship to $21,000,” he says.

“After letting them know it’d take a bit more to enroll, the admission office added $1,100 to the award.”

Over four years, that additional scholarship money adds up to $32,400 — not to mention, the student was able to attend their first-choice school!

5. Make Sure All Your Credits Count

If, once you’ve arrived on campus, you realize some of your AP classes haven’t been counted, don’t just lament about it on social media. Head straight to your dean’s office.

That’s what David Greenberg, president of Parliament Tutors, did. He convinced his dean that his previous college classes and AP credits should exempt him from some intro classes.

Because of that, he ended up graduating a semester early — and saving nearly $20,000. He’s not sure if this approach would work everywhere, but as he sagely explains: “The answer is ‘no’ to 100% of the questions you don’t ask.”

Your Turn: Did you know it was possible to haggle the cost of college? Will you try it?

Susan Shain is a freelance writer and digital nomad. She covers travel, food and personal finance (basically, how to save money so you can travel more and eat more). Visit her blog at susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.