As some colleges struggle, there may be an opportunity for more aid. Here’s how to negotiate

Personal finance

Stony Brook, N.Y. First day of the 2020 fall semester at Stony Brook University.

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Some of the most selective colleges and universities are seeing a surge in applications for incoming freshmen this fall. Yet other schools are struggling.

That may present an opportunity for families to try to get more money towards tuition.

“We could see a similar year to last year in terms of families having more consumer purchasing power, having some more leverage with those smaller, less selective, less well-known schools,” said Shannon Vasconcelos, who works with incoming freshmen and their families as director of college finance at Bright Horizons College Coach. She is also the former assistant director of financial aid at Tufts University.

“The schools are really dependent upon the tuition dollars,” she said.

The financial aid offices are very prepared for a big year of financial aid appeals.

Shannon Vasconcelos

Director of college finance at Bright Horizons College Coach

College applications are up by 10% this year, according to the Common Application, the most widely used college application. Yet those more selective public and private schools saw a 17% jump.

However, small institutions saw a decline across the board, except for the more selective private ones. Public school applications fell in both the more and less selective categories, by 3.76% and 4.71%, respectively, and applications to private, less selective colleges dropped 1.28%.

“Colleges and universities are businesses,” said certified financial planner Lawrence Sprung, president of Hauppauge, New York-based Mitlin Financial. “They are very well-run, well-oiled machines.

“Like anything else, there are opportunities.”

Sprung is currently going through the process with his 17-year-old son. The pair plan to negotiate for a better financial package once his son receives the third and final acceptance letter they are hoping for.

However, there are different tactics to getting more money, depending on whether it is need-based financial aid or merit-based scholarship money.

Requesting more financial aid

Financial aid decisions for the incoming freshman class are based on 2019 income levels. So, if your family’s finances took a hit during the pandemic, or there was any other change in your financial situation, you can file an appeal for more money.

Vasconcelos said common reasons include:

  • A job loss.
  • A hit to your savings since you completed the application.
  • High out-of-pocket medical expenses.
  • Support of elderly relative or family overseas.
  • Extra medical or care expenses for a special needs child.
  • Private high school tuition for a younger sibling.
  • Capital gains on stocks in 2019 that was not repeated.
  • You are no longer receiving the child support you got in 2019.
  • Parents’ student loan debt.

To file your appeal, go to the school’s website and fill out an official appeal form. If there is no form, email the school’s financial aid office. Explain the change in circumstances and ask for additional aid.

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You’ll have to include documentation to support your request, such as a termination or furlough letter, a large medical bill, your W2 or updated bank statements.

“The financial aid offices are very prepared for a big year of financial aid appeals,” Vasconcelos said.

Merit-based scholarships

As you await your acceptance letters, and before you start any negotiations, make sure you are already building a relationship with the schools’ admission offices, Sprung advised.

“Students should be in constant contact with the admissions counselors at their top schools to consistently show their interest,” he said.

When it comes time to request more scholarship money, reach out to the admissions office with a personalized message.

Ideally, you’ll have an offer from another school you can use as leverage. If so, be sure to include documentation in your email.

“What you want to avoid is demanding that one school match another school’s offer,” Vasconcelos advised.

“You want to convey a small increase from them would make a big difference to your decision,” she added. “That is when colleges will be more willing to work with you.”

If there are no cheaper options, it still doesn’t hurt to try. Just let them know that you aren’t sure if you can swing the costs, particularly under the current circumstances.

Asking if there are any other scholarships you can apply for is a nice way to phrase an ask for more money, especially if you have no competing offers or cheaper options to negotiate with, Vasconcelos said.

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