More, Please

Colleges may negotiate aid packages – but not often

By Eric Dash, The New York Times

Sunday, January 7, 2007 — At Carnegie Mellon, newly admitted students can play the financial aid version of “Let’s Make a Deal.”

The university will consider improving a financial aid package if a rival institution has offered more. In fact, it explains the negotiation process in its admissions material.

Here’s unhappy news for strapped applicants elsewhere: most financial aid officers frown on the very word “negotiate” and insist, at least publicly, that they will not haggle over tuition price or raise their bid.

Colleges put together a package of government grants and loans and their own money to fill the gap between costs and what they have determined you are able to pay. As college-bound students will discover when their award letters arrive, the amount and kinds of aid vary from college to college. Colleges may interpret data a little differently, and applicants may supply inconsistent financial information. The most wiggle room is in any merit aid that comes from a college’s own coffers. Some wind up chipping in more than others, depending on the depth of their pockets.

Most financial aid officials will reconsider your package, in what’s called a professional judgment review, if you have new financial information or expect unusual circumstances to suck up family funds – say, a parent’s sudden job loss, an expensive hospitalization or even a parent’s enrollment in college. According to a 2001 survey of members by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, almost half of appeals resulted in increases in awards. But while 33 percent of institutions said they adjusted aid frequently or always because of new information submitted by the family, only 7 percent said they did so because the family felt it was not able to pay and only 2 percent because of aid offers from elsewhere.

So someone out there is negotiating.

Public universities have less flexibility, and selective colleges may have less reason to improve a package. But administrators and consultants say that less selective private colleges are more liberal about making adjustments, particularly those with lots of non-need-based aid to distribute. Depending on where you stand, they may adjust the mix of loans and grants.

Such decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. Students who succeed in securing more aid generally have some leverage: a special talent or high scores as well as a competing offer from a rival school.

It may be worth a shot. Because the college cannot rescind admissions or aid offers, the worst thing anyone can say is no.

Timing Your Appeal
Before challenging a financial aid package, wait to hear back from every college that accepted you, and have details of their aid packages in hand to compare. “It’s important not to just rush and send in the acceptance letter right away and then try to appeal the package,” says Kalman A. Chany, author of “Paying for College Without Going Broke.” “They know you are coming anyway,” and won’t have any incentive to sweeten the deal.

Getting a Hearing
If you have received a better financial aid package elsewhere, consultants recommend sending a short letter or e-mail message to the financial aid office, and following up with a phone call. Steven Roy Goodman, a private admissions consultant in Washington, also suggests speaking to the person who conducted the interview or to the admissions office, to let them know how much you want to attend.

Present your case by making three main points, Mr. Goodman says. First, how excited you are about attending the college. Next, how paying for college is a financial stretch, and third, how you have a more attractive aid package from another institution. Then ask if the college would reconsider its initial offer. Provide documentation of financial hardship and have available the letters from the other colleges in case you are asked about their offers. After that, it’s up to the financial aid office to make its decision, which is final.

Playing Hardball
Families that try to bully their way to more financial aid are likely to walk away disappointed. “The common mistake is to think colleges are like a car dealership where bluff and bluster can give you a better aid package,” says Mark Kantrowitz, author of “FastWeb College Gold” and publisher of Playing on sympathies won’t go far, either. “It’s all information-driven and policy-driven.” And: “Don’t gripe about how hard it is to make ends meet. Almost always the financial aid administrator is making a lot less money.”

Negotiating for Other Things
If the financial aid office won’t improve its package, there may be ways to make it more attractive. Academic departments and alumni groups also offer merit scholarships. And at some colleges, it is possible to negotiate for benefits beyond money, says Yvonne Hubbard, director of student financial services at the University of Virginia. Ms. Hubbard says her university lost some students last year to competing colleges that assured perks – a research opportunity, a guaranteed slot in the business school, a spot in a special summer program. U.Va. is now assessing whether to do the same. “It is a trend that we have just started seeing,” she says. “It’s not just financial aid, but unique opportunities.”

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