Bargaining your tuition

TuitionMy youngest child is getting set to go off to college. Because she has done well in school, she was accepted to a large number of schools; a mix of state and private universities. She has her heart set on small, private liberal arts colleges. Most of those, with room and board, are in the 50k-60k range. More than a little sticker shock on my part.

Sometimes you must have the heart-to-heart with your child. We were very clear that:

  1. We hoped she would have choice, but that we would not be going into debt to create that choice; and
  2. We would not be taking out PLUS (Parent Loans).

I am in my 50s and am quickly headed toward retirement. Now is not the time to take on new, massive debt. Also, importantly, we had some money and some investments that were meant for college tuition. We just needed to make up the difference in some way.

By May 1, she needs to make a decision on which school to attend. This has meant that February and March have been all about the acceptances (or, in one case, the rejection) and April is all about making the money work.

Single Biggest Mistake
She received a wide variety of offers; from almost no financial aid to full rides. How can that be when colleges, for the most part, use the same financial aid forms? Something to remember is that this is all about interpreting data. People will reach different conclusions.

Would you be surprised if I told you that we are not even looking at the best offers that she received? As it happens, she received four full tuition or full tuition/housing offers. They would, though, as a group, not be good choices for her. In most of the cases, they would actually be bad choices for her (for a variety of reasons).

It’s not just about it all being cheap. It’s about it also being the right choice and about long-term goals as well. Incidentally, she received those offers as part of a special program that I will discuss in a future post.

So what is that single biggest mistake?

It is about believing that you must take the first offer. Colleges will bargain, particularly if it appears you:

  1. Can prove that you have greater need than what the FAFSA shows; and/or
  2. Can prove that you have other, better offers.

First things first: I never advocate lying to admissions or financial aid personnel. While it is wrong, it is also not in your best interest. It’s not about getting over on someone. It’s about getting a fair deal for everyone involved.

By the way, having high consumer debt is not a reason for a college to give you more money. Typically, it is not a factor at all. Nor should it be.

However, FAFSA does not always reveal all. Our daughter received offers to some very good colleges where the money just did not work out. We either had to go back and ask for more money or decide that the school drops off the list.

In most cases, we went back and asked for more. Here’s my advice: You need to be able to articulate why they should give you more money. It could be that you have had some recent life changes (lost job, getting divorced, etc.). It could be that you have high student loan debt yourself. This is the one area of consumer debt where there appears to be a little (but not a lot of) leeway.

So how much more did we get? Two colleges came back with increases in the five digits. A couple of others offered nothing. The rest? Somewhere in-between.

In The End
So, in the end, remember that the sticker price is not always the final price.

While I don’t dispute that there is definitely scholarship money out there, in most cases, you need to think carefully about the time factor involved. Sure, there are people who have worked hard at getting scholarships that cover everything. They usually write books about doing so. It’s unclear how well that works for most people. We spent far less time negotiating tuition than it would have taken to apply for a couple of scholarships.