What’s more, college prices are rising—a lot. Indeed, the cost of college in the United States has increased more than 25% in the last 10 years, according to data from the College Board. It’s gotten so pricey, in fact, that about four in 10 Americans feel that college may not be worth the investment, according to a 2019 survey by APM Research Lab.
And the current economic climate, including high unemployment, is making it even tougher for families to pay for college: A survey by OneClass in June revealed that more than half of college students say that they can no longer afford to pay their tuition because of extenuating circumstances surrounding COVID-19.
The good news: College experts say that there’s been a recent trend in families successfully negotiating to pay less for college. Here’s exactly how to do it.
Appeal Financial Aid Decisions
Don’t always accept the first offer a college gives you for financial aid, experts say, particularly if your family’s circumstances are different than when you sent in the application. If, for example, your income or marital status has changed, appeal the financial aid decision, advises Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at Savingforcollege.com.
This advice is especially relevant amid this pandemic. “The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is based on prior information—two-year-old information,” says Kantrowitz, so in this current economic climate, “you assume proportionality; [many] parents of college-age kids have either lost their jobs, experienced pay cuts or have been furloughed.”
So how exactly do you appeal? Call the financial aid office and ask to speak with the aid officer assigned to your family, says Eric Tyson, author of Paying for College for Dummies. “Express general concern about the high cost of attendance given the offer,” he says, adding that you should ask about specific aspects of your situation that led to a relatively low offer. You may learn, for example, that the offer was driven by a relatively high value they assigned to your home. “That’s something you could address specifically in your appeal,” says Tyson. “Put your appeal in writing and be sure to document anything that has changed for the negative since you originally completed the financial aid documents. This is one case where your bad news could be good news for getting a better price.”
Start this process before making a deposit for college, adds Tyson. “You’ll probably have less leverage with a school once they know you’ve already made the initial commitment,” he explains. And when engaging in these negotiations, “be honest, be careful and don’t make them feel like they need you more than you need them,” says Dr. Cynthia Colon, the Los Angeles-based founder of College Essay Bootcamp and Dream College Academy who currently has more than 100 students enrolled in her program.
Apply to Schools Where You’re in the Top Third
Many colleges are using complex “enrollment management programs that basically tell them how much someone is willing to pay based on a few hundred variables like their ZIP code, where their parents went to college and what kind of car they drive,” says Todd Fothergill, founder of college consulting firm Strategies for College. But, he adds, the numbers that these systems spit out are not set in stone. That means that there’s room to negotiate, especially if you’re in the top third of all incoming students, he explains, adding, “They’ve got a selling system in place, so you better have a buying system.”
Fight for Lower Costs When You’re Not Getting What You Paid For
If you’re not getting what was advertised, don’t pay for it—or at least try not to pay for it. This is true in non-pandemic times and may be especially relevant now. Indeed, with the landscape of school remaining uncertain given COVID-19, many college services aren’t being rendered as usual.
“What we saw in the spring semester was more than two-thirds of colleges in the United States giving refunds for room and board,” says Kantrowitz. So if you’re signed up to live in the dorms, but feel unsafe doing so, talk to your college to see if they will give you a voucher to use in a future year. If your classes are being taught remotely, asking for financial assistance can also be valid, especially if you’re studying something like art, dance or theater that requires in-person guidance. Similarly, students may be able to negotiate around sports, extracurriculars and cafeteria options being limited, since they’re receiving an abridged version of the experience.
Find Unexpected Ways to Pay for College
Academic and athletic scholarships aren’t the only types of aid colleges and universities offer. Scholarships.com boasts more than 3.7 million scholarships and grants available to students, ranging from a $1,000 scholarship for being tall to a $10,000 scholarship for vegetarians. And Fastweb.com, which provides access to more than 1.5 million scholarships, helps students find targeted scholarships based on their strengths, interests and skills.
Some companies offer tuition support for their employees. UPS, for example, operates a tuition assistance program that doles out up to $5,250 per employee each year, and Amazon’s Career Choice program will pay up to 95% of tuition fees for those earning degrees in high-demand occupations as long as they’ve been with the company for at least one continuous year.
If you are lucky enough to get a scholarship based on academics or athletics, know that those are negotiable too. Like with negotiating financial aid, if you’re one of the top candidates at the school, there may be room for you to get more money.
Look for Other Options If Your Negotiations Don’t Work
Even if asking for a discount proves unsuccessful, Colon suggests asking for a payment plan or a deadline extension to mitigate tuition stress. It’s likely that schools with higher endowments will be more likely and more able to weather the storm, she says. But even if your school isn’t in that category, it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Millie content is licensed from Meredith Corporation, publisher of Millie, Real Simple, InStyle and more.
Alisa Wolfson is a freelance writer whose work has been published by Marketwatch, Business Insider, the New York Post and more. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two daughters and their rescue dog, Gus.