Students negotiating better college deals

Tuesday, March 19, 2002

When John Davin got acceptance letters from seven colleges, he weighed their financial aid offers and then asked his top two choices if they could do better.

They could, and Davin saved nearly $6,000 his first year.

Now 20 and a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh -- which famously welcomes a chance to reconsider its aid packages -- Davin echoes advice often heard these days from guidance counselors, consultants and even some college officials: Don't be shy about asking a school to improve its financial aid offer if you think you have a good case.

"Go for it," Davin said. "You don't have anything to lose."

Janine Mayberry, a guidance counselor at Cape Girardeau Central High School, said students and their families should study up on the scholarships offered at colleges.

Mayberry said students and their parents have every right to bargain for the best financial deal they can.

"It is being a good consumer," she said. "There is nothing wrong in asking."

Michael Mercer, a senior at Central High School, is leaning toward attending Union University, a private Baptist school in Jackson, Tenn. He's been offered a scholarship, but it won't cover all the $18,000-a-year tuition. Mercer said his father is trying to negotiate a better deal, one that would leave the family with less to pay.

Mercer said getting financial aid means filling out lots of applications and even securing letters of recommendation and writing essays in some cases.

"They say they are out there," Mercer said of scholarships. "But you really have to focus on one at a time."

Doubled its offer

As for Davin, he was offered more money from two of the best colleges when he wrote to Cornell and Carnegie Mellon, citing a generous scholarship dangled by his third-choice school, his family's high property taxes in suburban East Northport, N.Y., and his three younger sisters headed for college.

For his freshman year, Carnegie Mellon nearly doubled its initial offer of a $6,000 grant.

This academic year, the university boosted its aid even more because Davin's eldest sister is in college, too. Davin and his parents are spending under $10,000 at Carnegie Mellon this year, less than a third of the estimated $35,700 cost of tuition, living expenses and supplies.

How many students and families ask for and get an improved financial aid offer is not tracked, but the number is probably small.

As colleges start sending acceptance letters this month, they will soon learn whether the tough economy prompts more parents to ask for better financial aid packages.

Can be receptive

Schools are most receptive to such pleas if there has been a sudden and drastic change in family circumstances since the financial aid questionnaire was completed, such as a parent losing a job.

Sharon Victor, a school bus driver, was ready go deep into debt to put her son, Jesse, through college. The 54-year-old single parent from South Salem, N.Y., makes under $30,000.

Victor was thrilled last year when the University of Rochester offered a mix of scholarships, grants and loans. It meant she would borrow around $12,000 a year.

Then Jesse won a $5,000 prize from his high school. Sometimes colleges subtract such gifts from aid they offer, but instead Victor was able to apply that money to reduce her borrowing to just under $7,000 this year.

"Colleges are out there that help in the process," she said. "Just reach out to whatever avenue is available."

College financial aid officers recoil from words like "negotiate" and "bargain" to describe the process. They prefer "appeal," "adjust" or "reevaluate."

And financial aid officers generally do not encourage families to angle for more money, said Dallas Martin, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

"Our people feel a lot of the families that are doing that, are treating it like they're shopping for a new car," Martin said. "We would hope they're looking at what is the best educational opportunity."

Tracking competition

Carnegie Mellon is the rare school that invites those they accept to submit offers from other schools, to see if Carnegie Mellon might improve its package.

This helps Carnegie Mellon track aid at its rivals, said Michael Steidel, admissions director.

"We don't try to match. We don't try to beat them," Steidel said. "We just try to close the gap."

Of those admitted for the Carnegie Mellon freshman class that entered this past fall, 673 asked the school to reconsider its aid offer and 314 succeeded. Of the latter, 171 enrolled.

Guidance counselors and private advisers suggest a diplomatic approach.

Denver education consultant Steven Antonoff said parents might call the school and say: "I don't want to barter with you. I am merely calling. We are fairly affluent, but we are not made of money. Biff wants to go to your place more than he does this other place and the difference in aid packages is ..."

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