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'We were able to negotiate $15,000 off': How students saved thousands on college tuition

Colleges have been "very, very willing to negotiate," one expert says.

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Ariel Skelley | DigitalVision | Getty

James Rebholz, 17, received merit scholarships from all but one of the nine colleges he applied to. The lone holdout was, of course, the school "we all love for him," says his mother, Laurie Rebholz.

Laurie didn't assume that was the end of the story. Instead, she wrote an email to the university and explained that James had received scholarship offers from other colleges. "We had the opportunity to express that if they really want him to attend and have them remain his first choice, that to really help even close the gap just a little bit would really factor into the decision," Laurie says.

Her effort paid off: "We were able to negotiate $15,000 off of the annual admission."

Laurie says the new scholarship offer is nearly equal to what the other eight schools had offered.

VIDEO5:5205:52
Yes, you can negotiate college tuition. Here's how these students did it

Video by Helen Zhao

Stories like the Rebholzs' have gotten more common during the Covid-19 pandemic as college enrollment suffered and classes went online. Undergraduate enrollment in the U.S. decreased by 3.6% in the fall of 2020 — a decline of more than 560,200 students.

Many of those were potential first-year students who decided to wait. College enrollments for 2020 high school graduates were down nearly 22% compared to the prior class year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Schools had to work harder to fill seats. 

That's given families more leverage when requesting additional merit-based aid. There has also been an increase in need-based appeals due to lost income because of the pandemic.   

"What we experienced during this last application cycle last spring and into the summer is colleges being very, very willing to negotiate — more than we've ever seen in the past," says Shannon Vasconcelos, a college finance consultant at Bright Horizons College Coach.

Vasconcelos saw a 10% increase last year in the number of clientele who received additional financial aid. "In the past we saw an average increase of something like $3,000" when families negotiated, she says. "Last year it was more like $5,000. We saw $10,000, $15,000, $25,000 increases, which in the past were unheard of."

Here's what experts say it takes to get the best discount you can on your college tuition. 

1. Express your commitment to the school

Nick Dadasis received $5,000 off his annual tuition at Bentley University in Massachusetts, where he's currently a freshman. "I made clear to Bentley that they're my top choice," Dadasis says. "It's up there for business schools."

Colleges are often more willing to work with you if some flexibility on their part will make a big difference in your enrollment decision, experts say.

"If you can give us X number of dollars, I will give you my credit card and make a deposit today. He will be there in the fall. Now, that's about as hardcore as you can make it that, yes, we're interested," says Todd Fothergill, founder of educational consulting firm Strategies for College.

What we experienced during this last application cycle ... is colleges being very, very willing to negotiate.
Shannon Vasconcelos
Bright Horizons college finance consultant

2. Explain how your financial needs have changed

Josephine Man received a 43% discount on her tuition at Vassar College in New York, where she's currently a freshman. She explained to Vassar that her parents' income had been significantly impacted by the pandemic and included supporting documentation.

A change in financial circumstances "is something that the colleges are very used to dealing with and are often willing to work with," Vasconcelos says.

 3. Draw attention to new accomplishments  

Let the school know if you've accomplished something impressive since you first applied. "Well, on her initial application, she had a 30 on the ACT. But she took it again and got a 33," Fothergill cites as an example. "She made the all-state chorus since she submitted her application, which was really competitive."

Laurie Rebholz and her son James, who is attending college in the fall.
Courtesy Laurie Rebholz

4. Present a better offer from another school

Laurie Rebholz leveraged other colleges' offers to secure a $15,000 annual award for her son James.

If you have better offers from competing schools, "that's like gold," Fothergill says. "It's going to show that somebody put some really high value on your son or daughter and that they could lose a student for X number of dollars that they don't have to lose."

You're going to have the best shot at maximizing your initial aid offer and negotiating with schools where you're an especially desirable candidate.

We saw $10,000, $15,000, $25,000 [award] increases, which in the past were unheard of.
Shannon Vasconcelos
Bright Horizons college finance consultant

"If you're looking for money, a reach school, by definition, you're going to fall in the bottom decile, bottom quartile of typically admitted students," Fothergill says. "They're not going to put money into that part of the grid."

Some students take on more debt because they assume they need to go to a fancy school to be successful. But studies have shown that's not the case. Students who attended highly selective schools did not earn a higher average salary than students who were accepted by or rejected from comparable, highly selective schools and then attended less selective ones, economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale found in 2000 and 2011.

To get the best deal on a college education, experts agree: Shop around and keep an open mind. The best price can come from negotiating, or by knowing when to walk away in favor of a more affordable school that could be just as good a fit for you.

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