Advice on Negotiating Financial Aid

April 9, 2022
A post by Stephanie Dupaul, Vice President for Enrollment Management

Families ask about negotiating aid for three reasons: their family’s financial situation has changed, they are shocked to learn that they don’t qualify for extensive need-based aid, or they know they have no need but read that Washington Post story about how everyone should try to negotiate for a scholarship.

Financial Aid offices understand that bad things can happen to great families, and they want financial aid outcomes to match the family’s current income. Financial aid is based on an old income year; if the family’s financial circumstances have changed – for example if a parent has become unemployed in the student’s junior or senior year – schools have mechanisms to consider a more current income year. The student should contact the Office of Financial Aid to initiate an appeal, asking that the financial aid advisor consider making a professional judgement to use a more recent tax year. Documentation will be required, as will some patience with the process.

Sometimes there is an error in the data. If the financial aid outcomes don’t seem to match what you know about the family, they might want to reach out to the financial aid office to double check the aid applications. The CSS Profile and FAFSA are not the most intuitive of forms – this would not be the first family to have checked an errant box or added an extra zero in just the wrong place. If so, the financial aid office can fix that entry and update the award if that change makes a difference.

Finally, some families are also seeking merit aid, negotiation, or package matching. They may say “we know that we don’t have need, but our child has worked incredibly hard and is amazing.” That’s nearly always true – they have worked hard, and are amazing! But not every school prioritizes merit aid, and some schools have a firm, “no negotiation” policy on merit aid.

If a parent wants to ask for additional non-need-based aid, they should first take the time to understand the context of the school so they have a realistic expectation of the likely outcome. At most schools, it is fairly easy to find the academic profile of the “average” admitted student. If the student’s record is not significantly above that average, merit aid is unlikely.

Students and families can also use the Common Data Set to find out how many students receive merit awards (hint: just google “common data set” and the name of the school, and scroll down to section H to see the percent of need met and the number of students without need who were given a university award). Some schools provide merit to almost all students, others provide merit to almost none. If a school has invested heavily in meeting full need, they are less likely to have merit awards.

When asking that a school consider increasing the award because the student has a larger offer from another school, consider the relative standing of the schools. Even among schools that will consider matching awards, there is little point in asking Princeton to match the financial aid offer from the North Kannawannakicku School of Kickboxing. The stronger a school’s reputation, the less they need to offer merit aid to enroll their desired class.

When talking to financial aid, consider the audience. The Financial Aid officer on the other end of the call is required to follow many complicated (and at times arcane and frustrating) Department of Education and University policies. Their office undergoes at least five audits a year, so their work is very closely monitored. They talk to hundreds of families who have hundreds of unique circumstances, some of which are simply tragic. They want to be fair and equitable. Patience and understanding that the desired outcome may not always be attainable is always appreciated.

Finally, the amount of the award itself must also be considered in context. Consider the graduation rate at the school – if graduation in four years is not the norm, what would be the additive cost for a fifth year of tuition, room and board? The cost of that fifth year will quickly erase the difference between a $10,000 scholarship at school A, and no scholarship at school B – not even factoring in the one year delay in starting a job and earning a salary.