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Posted at 6:33 AM ET, 04/ 5/2010

Negotiating the price of college -- Flagel, Part 4

By Valerie Strauss

Here is the fourth and last part of a financial aid primer written by Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions and associate vice president for enrollment development for George Mason University in Virginia. Check out Flagel’s amusing and forthright “Not Your Average Admissions Blog, A Beneath the Surface Look at Everything College Admissions (With a Few Shameless Plugs).”


By Andrew Flagel
For the most part, admissions and financial aid are honorable professions. My colleagues are generally very ethical people who strive to help students and deeply believe in the importance of their mission and the service they provide.

That being said, sometimes their work this time of year – the months that colleges and universities package financial aid – can seem a little dirty. I’m not talking DIRTY – I’ve yet to hear about a colleague finding a way to engineer financial aid kickbacks or helping the cartels launder money through financial aid.

Clearly, however, the process is neither transparent nor easy to understand. For years I’ve listened to my colleagues cry that we’re NOT used car dealers (by the way, I know some very ethical car dealers), but in the end, it comes down to a basic question for most families:

Can we negotiate/change the amount we’ll pay for school?

The very idea that costs, grants, scholarships, and other fiscal issues are malleable raises a slew of questions, and the massive lack of understanding and transparency inspires theories of graft and corruption.

Despite these concerns, there are many very legitimate reasons why financial aid packages and scholarship offers change. The most likely culprit is changing family circumstances.

If there’s a significant loss of income – changes in job status or health are the usual sources – financial aid offices have discretion to make adjustments to financial aid packages to reflect changes in your family’s need level. On the merit side, huge change in your academic profile (a massively higher standardized test score, a huge upturn in your grades) can, on rare occasions, lead to a larger scholarship award.

There are, however, less savory reasons schools might shift your offer. In the end, most of these come down to decisions about institutional income and profile. If a school wants your money and thinks they won’t get you without a “discount,” they might be more inclined to up their offer.

Last year, a blind panic erupted in many high-priced schools that the economic downturn would wreak enrollment havoc. As a result, there was a bizarre period where some expensive colleges and universities were sending admitted students new improved financial packages before the students had a chance to ask. In many cases, this happened long after the students had committed to other institutions, creating a delightful atmosphere of seediness and desperation and magnifying impressions that everything in admissions and financial aid is negotiable.

WRONG!

In reality, most schools aren’t going to make any adjustments to the aid they provide and for very very very good reasons. Nevertheless, some do, and before you try to squeeze these institutions, you need to be aware of some realities in the situation.

Even at the schools that routinely play these games, negotiation only works in your favor if the school REALLY wants you. If you’re just an average Joe for them, they’re not likely to break the bank to enroll you. It’s also helpful if you have unmet need (or need being only met with loans/workstudy). Somehow it makes those schools feel better to change a need award than to add more scholarship.

For such schools, and on the rare instances where it happens, it usually works like this: You had $1,000 in need, got $200 in scholarships, $100 in grants, and $700 in loans.

You let them know you REALLY want to go there, but too much of your package consists of a loan to afford it while this other school you like ALMOST as much shas been more generous (be prepared to prove that!). They come back and say, “Wow, you were right, that is a lot of loan – fortunately we really like you and can give you $300 in scholarships and $200 in grants and now your loan is just $500.” Isn’t that swell?

Now add a WHOLE bunch of zeros and you get the idea.

Most schools won’t participate in this kind of nonsense. The reality is that these kinds of games aren’t generally allowed with money from the state or federal government, so it’s usually only high tuition schools using part of their outrageous cost as discounts to recruit students that can afford these strategies.

Instead, most institutions package as well as they can from the start, except in cases of radical changes in family income or profile as described above. Keep that in mind, so when a school tells you they won’t negotiate but still love you, you won’t be mad at them for being transparent, up front, and ethical.

Speaking of ethics, I really had to stretch to work a shameless plug in around this topic! Fortunately two of our prominent faculty members recently published on somewhat, slightly related subjects. One has a book on the public policy issues around the use of techniques considered as torture; another published a study in conjunction with Yale researchers on how people tend to support conservation but few practice it. On reflection, they’re not really all that related.

One last gasp of worry about the scary things colleges and universities do to shake your confidence: it is worth asking how your financial aid will be calculated for all four years and whether your second or third year support will likely be less (even a lot less) attractive than what they offered you as an incoming freshmen. In particular, watch out for one year scholarships in the fine print.

And keep in mind, most of the schools are being really honest and up front with you.

Trust me.

Be seeing you.

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The other parts of the financial aid series are:

Part 1: An introduction to college funding and basic merit-based aid
“The vast majority of merit-based aid is used, to put it bluntly, to buy students.”

Part 2: Beyond basic merit-based scholarships:
“No matter how incredible your academic record, you’ll likely be shocked when that kid who slept all through junior year gets a larger scholarship from the same school. How is this possible? Just remember, scholarships are awarded to help colleges and universities get the students they want to enroll, not to be fair, just, or even reasonable.”


Part 3: Need-based aid:
“Need-based aid is, for the most part, determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or, in street lingo, FAFSA. Actually, it would more likely be “FAFSizzle”, but that’s not important right now. The U.S. Department of Education works hard every year to make the form easier, but the truth is that any way you cut it the form is going to be somewhat time-consuming and confusing."


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 5, 2010; 6:33 AM ET
Categories:  College Costs  | Tags:  Andrew Flagel, financial aid, negotiating price  
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