'Shark Tank'-winning CEO and college prep expert: 'Right now is the opportunity to negotiate tuition.' Here's how to bargain for more financial aid

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated America's student debt crisis, but it may also serve as negotiating leverage.

Shaan Patel, founder and CEO of Prep Expert.
Courtesy Shaan Patel

Before the coronavirus pandemic, nearly half of recent college graduates said their degree wasn't worth the resulting student debt. Now, as the majority of U.S. colleges move classes online, 93% of students think tuition should be discounted, according to a survey

If pursuing a degree has become a significant financial burden, the pandemic may serve as bargaining leverage, according to Shaan Patel, the CEO and founder of Prep Expert SAT & ACT Preparation. "Right now is the opportunity to negotiate tuition," he says. 

Here are four steps you can take to secure more college financial aid amid the pandemic. 

Leverage your bargaining power

"Most people don't realize, but negotiating tuition isn't something new," according to Ankur Jain, the CEO and founder of Kairos. "It's just that now, more than ever, prospective students have bargaining power," says Jain, whose investment fund creates companies that aim to address social issues like rising rents and child-care costs. 

Well before the pandemic, Patel was helping prospective students at Prep Expert get tuition discounts. Prep Expert is one of the fastest growing SAT and ACT test preparation companies in the country, thanks in part to securing an investment from Mark Cuban on ABC's "Shark Tank" in 2016. 

"I've had many students at Prep Expert successfully negotiate bigger financial aid packages," he says. 

Now that remote learning is the norm, colleges are more willing to discount tuition costs, Patel says. "Universities are more willing to come down on their tuition. Their overhead costs are a lot less and they can reach more students."

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Consider a backup offer 

As a jumping off point when negotiating with a college, "You always want to have a backup offer when you're negotiating. And let the person that you're negotiating against know that you have a backup offer," Patel says. 

Here's a scenario Patel shared: Let's say you received a $20,000 in merit-based scholarships, or even in need-based financial aid from a particular university. Approach the college you didn't get any financial aid from and say: "I'd love to come to your university, but you know, this other university is giving me X number of dollars in need-based or merit-based aid. Would you be able to match that or beat it? If so I'd be very willing to come to your university," Patel suggests.  

That's a strategy that Patel has had personal success with. He has earned several academic degrees, including a bachelor's degree and medical degree from the University of Southern California and an MBA from Yale. Through perseverance and by leveraging the power of negotiation, Patel never paid a dollar out of pocket for tuition, books, or housing. 

Jain agrees. "The best negotiating strategy is to say you're considering other universities who are offering discounted tuition as classes move online, combined with an explanation of why you need the financial support. Many students are finding themselves getting 10%-15% off with this strategy," he says. 

"You always want to have a backup offer when you're negotiating. And let the person that you're negotiating against know that you have a backup offer."
Shaan Patel
Founder and CEO of Prep Expert

Apply for niche scholarships and grants 

Even though Patel was his high school's valedictorian and graduated with a perfect 2400 on his SATs, the scholarships weren't pouring in. "I think that's where a lot of students fall short. They get great grades, they get great test scores, but then they just kind of wait and hope that universities and other scholarships will find them," he says. 

Rather than just hope for a great college aid package, Patel proactively applied to 100 scholarships and ended up winning 20 of them, amounting to $250,000.

When working with students, Patel says he sees "most parents and students go about looking for scholarships in the wrong way." Prospective students often go after big national scholarships, which hundreds of thousands of students apply for. "I only won one national scholarship and I had a perfect SAT score and was valedictorian. So the message that I want to get out to parents and students is, don't waste your time," he explains. 

Expand your focus to local scholarships that are only open to students in your state, he suggests. "I want to save [prospective students] a lot of time, increase their probability of winning, by focusing in on those local scholarships, because even if it's a local scholarship that's worth $1,000, $5,000, $10,000, I mean, that is very well worth your time. And those things add up if you win a few of them," Patel says. If you're having trouble finding the right scholarship to apply to, "talk to your high school guidance counselor," he suggests.

Prioritize cost over clout 

If you're just entering college or going back to school for another degree, Patel's number one piece of advice is: "Try to choose the school at the lowest cost possible."

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"I personally turned down the Ivy League education at Brown University to take a full-tuition scholarship at the University of Southern California." He ended up using the $250,000 he won in local scholarships for living costs and school supplies, and he even negotiated with donors, convincing them to let him use the remaining money for future degrees. 

Choosing a school based on costs is something his mentor and business partner Mark Cuban did as well, Patel says. "I know Mark Cuban — he chose Indiana University because it was the lowest cost college he got into."

Especially in this economic climate, "I would much rather have a student or an adult who's going back to school choose a great state college or state university over the Ivy Leagues where you're going to end up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt in many cases, or even a community college or an online college," Patel says. 

And if the state of the economy has you rethinking school altogether, Patel says to remember that this is a short-term economic event. "We will bounce back," he says.

Think of the pandemic as an opportunity for investing in the future you, Patel says. "I think if you spend your time right now in pursuing higher education or working really hard on your business ... whatever it may be, if you spend it wisely, in the long term, you will see return."

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