Negotiating Your College Financial Aid Package

Scenario: You’re a talented student with high financial need who’s been accepted to some of the country’s top private colleges and universities. You’re going to college no matter what, but your financial aid package could determine where you enroll. You’ve completed the FAFSA, you’ve submitted the CSS PROFILE, and the offers are rolling in from selective colleges and universities: Vanderbilt, Williams, Northwestern, Boston College, Grinnell, Colgate, Rice, Penn, Lafayette, RPI, Duke, Oberlin – they all want you! And they’re all helping you pay the bill, but the financial aid packages look markedly different. So now what?

Did you know that you can negotiate your college financial aid package, especially if you are a high-talent student attending one of the nation’s more selective colleges? These academically driven schools compete for top-notch students like you, and I’m sharing some strategies for getting the best package you can from your preferred institutions.

When assembling your college financial aid package after (or alongside) your acceptance, each school will probably be considering three things:

A. The specifics of your financial situation, which each of them will weigh a little differently based on a combination of the FAFSA and CSS PROFILE results.

B. How competitive you are compared to the rest of their admitted students. In other words, how badly do they want you to enroll versus the other people they’ve admitted? No college ever plans on everyone saying yes, and even the Ivies know they won’t draw 100% yield. But schools certainly like their yield to represent the best possible entering class out of the larger population of admits.

C. What they can afford. Most of these select private schools have deep pockets, but they still have a budget in place for financial aid.

After you receive your college financial aid packages and review them, you’re bound to notice differences, though they all involve some combination of grants, scholarships, loans, and/or work study. The best thing to do is take the calculations step by step.

1. Each school has a different cost of attendance (COA) based on tuition, fees, room, board, and other projected expenses, with regional cost of living typically factored in too.

2. Though the FAFSA determines an expected family contribution (EFC) using federal formulas, each school has probably done their own calculations, using their own formula, to determine their version of the EFC. Let’s call this the college’s EFC, or CEFC, though it’s not an official term.

3. Line up all the packages and ignore the EFC you got from the FAFSA. What’s in play now is really the CEFC from each of the schools. Even if a school doesn’t tell you flat out what their CEFC is, they’ve told you the COA because they have to. And they’re also given you the details of the aid package. You can do the math: COA – Total $ in package = CEFC.

4. Now you know what each of the schools expects you to pay out of pocket. That’s the one thing you can measure across the board. The rest of the comparison is more qualitative: weighing the mixes of grants, scholarships, loans, and work study. As you are surely aware, grants and scholarships are the best because there’s no repayment obligation. Loans, while certainly not bad, do have to be repaid. And of course, there are different kinds of loans – some for your parents and some for students.

To illustrate, let’s look at a pared-down sample for negotiating your college financial aid package:

Blue College (your first choice)
�· COA = $34,500
�· Scholarships and Grants = $19,500
�· Combined Loans and Work Study = $10,000
�· CEFC = You pay $5,000 out of pocket

Yellow College (your second choice)
�· COA = $28,000
�· Scholarships and Grants = $19,000
�· Combined Loans and Work Study = $6,000
�· CEFC = You pay $3,000 out of pocket

Red College (your third choice)
�· COA = $31,000
�· Scholarships and Grants = $26,000
�· Combined Loans and Work Study = $3,000
Ã?· CEFC – You pay $2,000 out of pocket

As you can see, your first choice (Blue) might have put together a viable package, but Yellow’s financial aid offer is better. And Red’s is the best of all, even though it’s not your top school. Now it’s time for negotiating shrewdly. Presumably, it’s sometime in March or April and you’ve got at least a few weeks between now and May 1, the general deadline for committing to enrollment. Roll up your sleeves, and consider the following:

If you really want to attend Blue, the goal is to get them to come closer to (if not match) the offers by Red – or at least Yellow. Contact an admissions representative at Blue – perhaps the person who interviewed you or someone on whom you think you made a good impression.

If there is no such person, just CALL and ask for someone in admissions to review your file with you (admissions and financial aid people work together at these institutions). Do not email; it’s just not as personal.

Let them know that you’re still making your decision but that right now Blue is your first choice. Most admissions people, trained to sell you and already knowing that you were good enough to get admitted, will ask what kind of help or additional information they can provide. This is a good time to mention that, although you’re really excited about the school, the financial aid package isn’t ideal. Just a few of the possible ways of phrasing this:

– “The package is generous, but I think it’s going to make things tight for my family, and I don’t know if my parents will agree to it.”
– “I’m worried about all those loans. I know it’s an investment, but we could end up borrowing $40,000 over four years.”
– “I’m afraid I might not be able to attend.”
– “I’m grateful but a little disappointed.”

Do this yourself INSTEAD of having your parents do it, as it shows initiative and a bit of hunger. Your parents can always be there for moral support in the background. And here’s a secret: most admissions representatives at selective private colleges like dealing with students more than they like dealing with parents. Furthermore, if your parents take more of a back seat, the college administrators may nurture you a little more, especially when they see you negotiating your college financial aid package. So, milk it bit. As long as you don’t lie, you’re not doing anything wrong. You’re just presenting yourself in a sympathetic light, which is the same thing that well-off students and parents do during the admissions game.

See how the administrators respond. If you’re not getting much of a response, ask them to tell you more about how the package was put together. This may involve some discussion with a financial aid representative or may even take a day or two of exchanged phone calls. Do it. Show them that you’re serious and that you want to know. A great question to ask politely is:

“Is this the type of package that students in my financial situation usually receive?”

Remember that you still have a card to play – those offers from Yellow and Red. Don’t share all the details quite yetâÂ?¦but let the admissions and financial aid folks know that you have received better offers elsewhere. Some verbiage you can drop in this discussion:

“âÂ?¦more manageableâÂ?¦”
“âÂ?¦would make it easier for me to focus on schoolâÂ?¦”
“âÂ?¦better for my familyâÂ?¦”
“âÂ?¦less of an emphasis on loansâÂ?¦”
“âÂ?¦a difference of several thousand dollarsâÂ?¦”
“âÂ?¦Even though I want to attend Blue, this could make the difference.”

After a conversation like this, Blue may be willing to up the grant dollars a bit. See what they offer you. If they revise your package, ask them to fax it or email it so that you have something in writing. Also, be patient within reason – because this is an incredibly tense and busy time for these administrators. You have until May 1.

There may come a point at which you just share the other offers with Blue, so ask if they’d be willing to review a fax. Use your judgment on which one(s) to send. Even though Red’s package might be best overall, perhaps Yellow is closer to Blue’s level of prestige and thus holds more weight. Based on the extensive research you’ve undoubtedly done on these institutions, decide whether to share Yellow’s package, Red’s package, or both packages with Blue.

If this process doesn’t work with Blue, you can try using Red’s offer to negotiate with Yellow, employing the same strategies as above. However it turns out, there are a few things to remember:

Your negotiations are most likely to be successful with a college if your overall academic and extracurricular profile is at least average (and preferably, above average) compared to the typical entering classes in recent years. By comparing your grades and SAT/ACT scores with those of previous entering classes, you can roughly judge your qualifications. In other words, you need to “guesstimate” whether you were:

– an immediate, across-the-board “YES!” who stood out from other applicants
– someone ahead of the curve and comfortably admittedâÂ?¦the lower-case “yes!”
– someone who ran with the pack and got inâÂ?¦the basic “yes.”
– someone who barely made itâÂ?¦.the “well, uh, yes, we suppose.”

The closer you are to the top of that list, the better your chances are for negotiating your college financial aid package with a given college or university. However, even if you’re just a plain old admit who is par for the course at that school, they might be willing to work with you if they’re having a low-yield year. You will not know this, and they won’t share because they don’t know officially know until May 1 begins to roll around. Admissions is a numbers game, and schools run into trouble when not enough of the people they admitted choose to enroll. Even if it’s a selective school, accepting only 40% of applicants, their yield on those accepted may only be 27% this year – when it was more like 32% in previous years. That makes a noticeable difference in the size of the freshman class, and the school ends up taking wait-listed students, something it does more because it has to than because it wants to.

My last piece of advice is this:

Using the Blue/Yellow/Red scenario, it’s okay to negotiate with Blue, to “lose the fight” and still attend Blue if you and your family can make it happen. There are no repercussions, and there won’t be any black mark next to your name because you tried to get a better package. Isn’t it worth the effort?

If the denial of a better package does prevent you from attending your top choice, fret not, for you’re still bound to have a solid experience at your number two. Or even your financial safety school, if it comes to that.

Since graduating from college, I have personally coached some top-flight high school students (with very heavy financial need) negotiate for better packages, so it is definitely possible. As someone who came from outside the traditional middle-class and upper-middle-class pool for these private colleges, I can say one final thing: Advocate for yourself�because someone has to.

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