Is It Possible To Negotiate Your College Tuition?

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If you've checked the cost of a year of college education lately, it's enough to put a parent into sticker shock.

But are these budget-busting tuition rates really the bottom line?

Some experts say no, that buying a ticket to a bright future is really more like buying a ticket aboard an airline.

"You're likely paying something different than the person next to you for your ticket,” Mamie Voight of the Institute for Higher Education Policy said. “College students are in the same boat. They're likely paying something different than the student sitting next to them."

It's an insider secret many aren't privy to.

"My greatest concern is some of the families that most need additional help, don't know," Jefferson Blackburn-Smith, Vice President of Enrollment Management at Otterbein University in Westerville, said.

When asked if college tuition is negotiable, he answered, “Certainly at some schools, it's very negotiable."

Gail and Eric Dulaney are helping their son Austin plan for his college education.

"We do have a little money saved through a college savings plan,” Eric said. “So that will help get through the first year."

For Austin, like so many others, dreams of matriculating at the most desirable schools are brought back to reality by questions of price, and how they'll pay for it.

"We were talking about the school up north,” Gail said with a laugh. “We were like, ‘if they offer you something, then we're going to consider that,’ you know?"

But they may not have to resort to that.

"You could say it's a buyer's market,” said Susan Dileno, Vice President for Enrollment at Ohio Wesleyan University.

She says decreasing numbers of high school graduates in Ohio have the state's many colleges and universities clamoring for the right students.

And the more competitive higher education market only serves to help students and their families.

“I think so, in terms of admission, and I think probably on the financial aid side too," Dileno said.

But even if you make the grade and get accepted at pricey private colleges like Ohio Wesleyan, where base tuition pushes $43,000, how do you pay for it?

"We want students here,” Dileno said. “We want good students here. So we're willing to do our best to try to make it work for families."

While colleges aren't car dealerships, there are similarities - just like the price of a car, tuition can be negotiable.

Also like buying a car, almost no one pays full sticker price.

"The list price they see is not the price that they are going to pay," Blackburn-Smith, who oversees admissions and financial aid for Otterbein, said.

Experts say when it comes to what students pay, private colleges like Otterbein have much more flexibility than public schools like OSU.

"The discount is the difference between list price and net tuition. It is different based on families' ability to pay at a private institution,"

It starts with the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

That gives schools a snapshot of your family's finances, and produces an EFC, Expected Family Contribution.

Schools use those numbers to put together a financial aid package for your student. But what happens when it's not enough to make ends meet?

While Dileno doesn't like the word ‘negotiate,’ she says there is room for discussion.

"We are always open to taking a second look. If a family calls us and has a concern about the expected contribution, or if they're looking at other packages and they're seeing quite a big differential between packages, and they're confused by that, we would encourage them to call,” she said. “So I wouldn't say it's negotiable. But I think the better term is, there could be ‘reconsideration’ of aid.”

When asked if she’s ever changed a student’s financial aid offer based on an offer from a competing school, Dileno said, “I would say yes, sure."

Mamie Voight researches college affordability and access for the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

“Many more well-resourced families are already taking advantage of it. Because they know to make that phone call and get that better deal,” she said. “It certainly, for low-income students, is worth making that call to see if they can negotiate, just as their higher-income classmates are."

Blackburn-Smith says honesty and sincerity are key.

"They sometimes forget that if they filed that paperwork, I know how much money they make. I know what the government thinks they can pay. So we're not going to be as inclined to negotiate for the sake of negotiating," he said.

The last thing he wants to see is a family of a worthy student presume that opportunity is out of reach.

"We will work with families,” Blackburn-Smith said. “If this is the best fit for their kid, we want to make sure that we can be as affordable as possible."

It is welcome news for the Dulaney family, eager to help their son fulfill his dreams.

"It is a great relief," Eric said.

"I can't wait to be able to step on that campus that'll be good for me and my family," Austin said.

Three steps for success:

  • File the FAFSA, even if you don't think you'll be eligible for aid. Experts say you might be surprised.
  • Make sure schools know about changes that impact your family's financial picture: a death in the family, a divorce or job loss.
  • Ask about any scholarship or grant opportunities you may not already know about.

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Susan Dileno, Vice President for Enrollment, Ohio Wesleyan University

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Jefferson Blackburn-Smith, Vice President of Enrollment Management, Otterbein University

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