How to Negotiate College Tuition

How to Negotiate College Tuition

Zina Kumok

Zina Kumok is a personal finance writer and speaker with a background in financial literacy, student loans, credit scores, and investing. She's a three-time nominee and finalist for Best Personal Finance Contributor at the Plutus Awards. Zina paid off $28,000 in student loans in three years. Holding a bachelor's degree in journalism from Indiana University, she has worked for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. Her byline has appeared in Indianapolis Monthly, the Commercial Appeal, and the Associated Press, and as an expert, she's been featured in the Washington Post, Forbes, Fox Business, and Time. Additionally, Zina is a Certified Financial Health Counselor and Student Loan Counselor.

It’s a common problem. You apply to college and get admitted. But then you discover a major issue: you can’t actually afford to attend school.

In many cases, students will end up taking out more student loans to cover the difference, find a cheaper school to go to or in worst case scenarios, skip college entirely. But if you’re smart, you can actually lower tuition costs just by talking to the financial aid department.

Keep reading to learn how you can negotiate college tuition - and how much you might save.

Can you negotiate college tuition?

After you apply to college and fill out the FAFSA, you will receive a financial aid award letter. This letter will outline how much financial aid you will receive, including:

  • Student loans
  • Federal grants
  • State grants
  • Work-study
  • Scholarships

The letter will also state how much you will have to pay out-of-pocket, if there is any amount remaining. If you're like many families, you will have to take out a significant amount in student loans to cover tuition. That’s where your negotiating skills come in.

When we talk about negotiating college tuition, it’s not like going to a farmer’s market and asking the vendor for a lower price if you buy two bunches of kale instead of one.

To successfully negotiate your college tuition bill, you’ll need to provide proof that you can’t afford to pay the initial amount stated. For example, if your parents are in the process of getting divorced, it may help to show proof that they have filed for divorce (especially if they were still married when you initially completed the FAFSA).

How to appeal your financial aid results

Find proof

The financial aid award letter is not set in stone. You can contact the college and appeal the results, which means finding proof that shows your financial situation is worse than it appears on the FAFSA.

You will likely need to provide some kind of proof to back up your claim. This might include a letter of termination (if one of your parents was fired or laid off), medical bills and more.

It helps to point out things that may not have come up on the FAFSA or CSS Profile. This can include:

  • Demotion or furlough
  • Supporting other family members and dependents
  • Other major bills and expenses

If you want to file an appeal, you should do it as soon as possible. If you don’t hear back within a couple of weeks, you should follow up with the financial aid department. Remember, most schools have a deadline on when you must accept their enrollment offer. If you miss that deadline, then your spot may be given to a student on the waitlist.

When filing an appeal, you should not state exactly how much money you need to afford the school’s tuition. Let the school decide how much to give you; you never know if they’ll give more than you’re expecting.

Reach out to all potential schools

If you received approval offers from multiple schools, you can file an appeal with all of them. You can send a similar letter. Just make sure to personalize it for each school’s financial aid department. You never know which school will come back with an improved offer.

Be polite

When asking for a discount, it pays to be polite. Remember, you're at the mercy of the financial aid officer who is reading your letter. If you’re rude, entitled or condescending, you may hurt your chances at getting more money.

What else you can do

Appealing your financial aid results isn't the only way to reduce your tuition bill. Here are some other strategies you can try:

Apply for more scholarships

Besides appealing your financial aid results, applying for scholarships is one of the best ways to reduce your tuition bill. Unlike student loans, scholarships do not have to be paid back and can cover your entire cost of attendance.

Many students pass up thousands or even tens of thousands of scholarship dollars by not applying. They wrongly assume that they need to have a 4.0 GPA and a 1600 on the SAT to be a good scholarship candidate. However, all kinds of students can qualify for scholarships. The trick is to find scholarships geared toward students with your hobbies, interests and demographic info.

Attend school in-state

Another simple way to cut costs is to go to school in-state. The average cost for an in-state public four-year school was $9,750, compared to $27,457 for an out-of-state public four-year school and $38,768 for a private university. That’s a difference of about $70,000 if you go to an out-of-state school and a stunning $116,000 difference if you attend a private school.

Plus, if you go to school in-state, you'll be eligible for more state-based grants. Most state grants are only given to local students. If you go to an out-of-state school, you likely won’t qualify for any state grants.

Go to a community college

Students who really want to get the best bang for their buck may want to consider attending community college for their core classes and then transferring to a four-year school.

The average tuition cost at a community college is $3,885, which is about $6,000 less than what you would pay at an in-state four-year public school. That’s about $12,000 worth of savings, at the very least.

If you go to a local community college, then your credits will likely easily transfer to an in-state four-year school.

The Bottom Line

While negotiating your tuition can be a useful strategy, you shouldn’t necessarily count on it being successful. Remember, the financial aid department makes the decision, not the government. As always, applying for more scholarships is one of the best ways to reduce your dependence on other types of financial aid.

We make it simple and match you to college scholarships you qualify for.