Updated July 31, 2019: Haggling for a lower sticker price with a shady salesman is such a common part of shopping for a car that it’s almost become mandatory, like some kind of tradition.
When it comes to paying for a college education, many parents and kids hold tuition as this sacred expense and may avoid negotiating for a better deal. It’s partially out of respect: a financial aid office is not a car dealer so there’s an assumption that tuition rates are set in stone, that a higher education is full price, non-negotiable.
Not only is negotiating for lower tuition appropriate, we encourage it. By passing up on the opportunity to start a dialogue with your college-to-be about a possible tuition discount, you could be missing out on the chance to save money on one of the biggest expenses of your life.
Mind you, college is not cheap, and getting more expensive with each passing year; according to the College Board, the average tuition for a 4-year public college, in-state, in 2021, is $10,560, and $27,020 for out-of-state students. For private universities, tuition costs in 2015-2016 averaged $37,650.
Why should you negotiate for a tuition discount?
Apart from the fact that you’re awesome, you might be overlooking the fact that you qualify for a tuition discount and you don’t even know it. Depending on the college/university, some students may be eligible for a tuition discount due to special family circumstances, financial need, religious affiliation or some other special factor.
Another way to obtain a reduction in tuition is to convince admissions and financial aid staff that you deserve one. By emphasizing that you can bring a special sense of value to the school, that you’d be an asset more than just a student, a college may hold you in a more favorable light than the average student; impressed by your motivation and drive, they may be more open to the idea of gifting you with a discount.
Before signing any checks or borrowing any student loans, follow some of these steps to get a lower rate on your college tuition.
Start comparison shopping college tutition
This is where college tuition rate negotiation is actually a lot like shopping for a car. Students should first apply to schools based on academic qualifications, since the chance to obtain financial aid or scholarships can cut down on tuition costs. Also follow through on filling out your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as usual; a potential tuition discount should be in addition to any financial aid you may qualify to receive.
Second, parents and children should keep finances in mind when sending out applications. Consider schools that are within your family’s budget and price range. Once you’ve been accepted to your top priority colleges, compare the tuition rates for each one, but also take into consideration other costs (especially if you’ll be attending school out of state), like room and board, meal plans, and other fees.
Bear in mind that a private college that relies more on tuition money may be more open minded to striking a tuition deal with you, improving your chances of attending a school that may have been out of your family’s price range.
Arrange the ask like a job interview
Waltzing into the admissions office at your college of choice and casually asking for a tuition discount won’t get you taken seriously — not when there’s hundreds or thousands of dollars at stake.
Treat it like you would a job interview; call the school to schedule a one-on-one, in-person meeting with an admissions or financial aid officer or representative. Being presentable, polite and professional will speak volumes about your intent and carry your message further than your parents ever could by negotiating on your behalf.
Some experts suggest that parents, not students, should do the negotiating in sensitive financial matters, especially when it comes to terms and dollar amounts, and couching the discussion in the right direction. However, college students who feel confident in their negotiation skills and financial know-how may feel more comfortable representing themselves.
Here are some more tips on nailing the interview process.
Dispute any errors
After you’ve sat down with a school representative, initially present your request as a question along the likes of, "Can you explain to me how the final number in my financial aid award was calculated? I want to make sure there wasn’t an error in reaching the amount awarded to me."
Even if the information is accurate, it opens up the opportunity to start guiding the dialogue in the right direction: why saving money on tuition is important to you, and how granting you a tuition reduction/discount benefits both you and your school.
Leverage college offer matching
If you’ve been accepted to several other schools with lower tuition rates, use it as leverage during your negotiation meeting.
"The best way to negotiate your way down to a lower tuition rate is to show a comparable school that you got accepted to and ask for them to match the offer," says AJ Saleem, owner of Suprex Learning. "Typically, if the college is desperate for great students, then you have a chance."
Just like rate matching when going new car hunting, using the same approach when appealing to a college may be one of the deciding factors in granting you some money off your final tuition bill.
Indicate special circumstances or needs
Can you demonstrate any type of hardship or special need that may qualify you for a rate reduction? If one or both family’s parents are unemployed, disabled, divorced, or some other extenuating, unusual circumstance, like a death in the family, a university may consider the financial (and academic) implications and make an adjustment to your tuition.
Don’t be afraid to inquire further if your school of choice offers financial help for minorities, or to children or grandchildren of college alumni.
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Sell yourself strong, not short
There’s no need to grovel, beg, plead or get on your knees when requesting a tuition reduction. You’re not asking for zero tuition, just for a discount, which is why it’s imperative to sell yourself as a student and convince the school why you should receive a discount -- not demand one or appear entitled.
What’s their ultimate incentive to charge you less tuition money than your peers? Consider these talking points when negotiating:
Grades and academic achievements. If you maintained high grades in high school, remained on the honor roll, or belonged to any honors societies or received any academic awards, make note of it in the tuition bargaining process. There may be a rate discount in addition to grant or scholarship opportunity.
Athletic endeavors. Students who’ve shown athletic talent can cast themselves in a good light for a tuition reduction, especially at colleges with a significant sports culture. Just like with academic merit, it’s helpful to have a reference from a teacher or coach when applying.
Examine the alternatives
If your college or university of choice is unable or unwilling to slash some of your tuition costs, there’s no need to resign yourself to paying full cost.
Campus employment or work-study opportunities can help offset your expenses to attend. Many opportunities pay students a small stipend, or allow you to "work off" your tuition by fulfilling a quota of hours per semester or school year.
Your employer may be able to negotiate a tuition rate reduction. "Companies can often negotiate a group rate with universities and online course providers to offer volume discounts and reduced tuitions," said Adrian Ridner, CEO and co-founder of Study.com. "You can also see if your employer offers tuition reimbursement, and then assess how you can use that money towards your tuition."
Scholarships and grants are just a couple of ways to reduce your tuition without needing to borrow student loans. Don’t worry about landing that big, full-ride award; plenty of smaller scholarships and grant monies are available to help cut down on your costs to attend. And they’re available everywhere; look for scholarship opportunities through school, church, local groups and organizations, online, or even through your job.
For parents, one alternative to borrowing student loans with high interest rates is to borrow against a home equity line of credit; mortgage refinances are another option. Keep these options as a last resort, however; putting one’s house on the line for a college education may encourage debt.
The worst they can say is "no"
Before any types of admissions applications or tuition negotiations ever enter the picture, be sure that you’ll be happy attending the school you’ve got in mind. There’s no point in landing a reduced rate if it’s at a school misaligned with your academic, social or professional needs.
Make sure to follow up via email after your meeting — or better yet, through a personalized, signed letter — thanking your admissions/financial aid advisor for the opportunity, and for their time. Presenting a mature, professional image is what gets parents and students taken seriously and remembered in a positive light.
Always remember that a tuition reduction is one of those surprises that won’t come to you just by wishing for it. Negotiation is an art, but it’s also work. You’ve got to make the effort and ask.
After all, the worst they can say is "no."
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