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8 Winning Strategies for Negotiating Your Merit Scholarship

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The following post is written by Shannon Vasconcelos, Director of College Finance, College Coach.


The college admissions and financing processes can be overwhelming.  The amount of paperwork is staggering, your fate lies in the hands of Admissions and Financial Aid Officers, and their decisions don’t always make sense to the outside observer.  It’s easy for families to feel out of control. 


My favorite part of my job as a College Finance Consultant for College Coach, however, is to educate families about the power they do hold in this college process—the power to decide what college to spend your money on and how much you’re willing to spend for that college.  And there’s no better avenue for flexing your muscles as a consumer of the college product than the scholarship negotiation process. 

Buying a college education is no different than buying a car or a house or any other big-ticket purchase that you would rarely consider paying sticker price for.  There’s no reason to accept a college’s first offer, so utilize the below tips to negotiate with a college for an increase in your merit scholarship.

  1. Apply to Safety Schools: The colleges most likely to be willing to work with you on price are those that really want you to enroll.  Apply to colleges where your grades and test scores are above average—institutions where you’ll stand out from the crowd—and you are likely to be recruited with scholarship offers.  You can then negotiate to get those offers higher and/or use those offers as leverage when negotiating with other schools.
  2. Demonstrate Interest: Colleges will be most willing to negotiate with you if they believe that a bit of additional funding from them will secure your enrollment, so be sure you show interest in the schools on your list. Visit campus, take advantage of optional interviews, log in to their student portal, and—I beg you here—open the emails they send you.  (Yes, many schools can—and do—track that.)  Without any kind of demonstrated interest, a college is likely to assume that you have no intention of enrolling and are just using any offers from them as negotiating material with other schools.  This is not the message you want to send.
  3. Contact the Admissions Office: At most colleges, the Financial Aid Office awards all need-based financial aid, while the Admissions Office—in charge of recruitment—awards all merit scholarships. If you are just negotiating a merit scholarship, you should be talking to the Admissions Office, but if need-based aid is in play as well, it wouldn’t hurt to loop both offices into your conversation.
  4. Put it in Writing: If you call or walk into a college Admissions Office, it is unlikely the person you’re talking to has the power to change your scholarship offer—certainly not right on the spot—and such requests are often met with firm resistance. Instead, email the Admissions Office, let the letter get to the right person—these requests sometimes need to go to a committee—and follow up with a phone call a week or two later.  This strategy allows the Admissions Officer to serve as your advocate in the negotiation process, rather than your adversary.
  5. Be Nice: Remember, from a college’s perspective, the purpose of increasing your scholarship offer is to get you to enroll. That means the college needs to be willing to work with you for the next four years.  Don’t be insulting or demanding in your negotiation attempt.  You do not want to represent yourself as what one colleague of mine graciously refers to as an “administratively expensive family.”  You can be persistent, but always be polite.
  6. Attach Competing Offers: You need to create the threat (again, in the nicest way possible) of you attending elsewhere. Don’t hesitate to share competing offers from other schools.  Name names and attach scholarship offers to verify that you’re not bluffing.  If you don’t attach offers up front, be prepared to provide them upon request (and many schools will, in fact, request).
  7. Don’t Call it “Negotiation”: As much as requesting additional scholarship assistance is a negotiation (and make no mistake, that’s exactly what it is), colleges tend not to like the image of a used car lot that the word “negotiate” summons.  Therefore, don’t ask if you can “negotiate” your scholarship.  Asking, “Are there any additional scholarships I can apply for to make my attendance more feasible?” is a better move.
  8. Don’t Ask for the World: Colleges have a limited amount of money in their scholarship budget, and huge increases in funding are unlikely. From my experience working at colleges and with families at College Coach, I have found that a typical scholarship increase resulting from a negotiation is around $3,000.  Keep this in mind as you ask for more.  If you ask for tens of thousands of dollars, it is unlikely that the college will provide anywhere near that much funding, and, in fact, it’s quite likely that they will not waste their time and budget to offer a small increase if they get the impression that their increase will not be enough to move the needle for your family.  Rather, if you can convey that a small amount of give on the college’s end will make a big difference to your enrollment decision, the college may be more likely to work with you.

Regardless of your exact approach, there is absolutely no downside to attempting to negotiate your scholarship offer.  A college will not rescind your acceptance or take away money they’ve already awarded you because you decided to ask for more.  The worst a college will do is say “no,” in which case you’ll need to decide whether or not that particular school is worth the price of admission for you.  You may be surprised, however, at how often colleges say “yes” and send more money your way in an effort to secure your enrollment.  And, remember, you—students and parents—have the final decision-making power in this process.  You can say “yes” or “no” to any college, and the colleges know that.  Use this power to your advantage.


About the author:

Shannon Vasconcelos is Director of College Finance at College Coach, the nation’s leading provider of education advising, where she delivers workshops and provides individual counseling on the college finance process. Before joining College Coach, Ms. Vasconcelos worked in financial aid at Boston University and Tufts University. She has a BA in Economics from the University of Massachusetts and an MA in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning from Tufts University.


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