Negotiation and Professional Judgment
Negotiation refers to the idea that you can haggle with the financial aid office to get a better financial aid package. Very few schools do negotiation, and those that do, do so only according to set policies. Colleges are not car dealerships, where bluff and bluster will get you a better deal. You cannot play one school off another, to get them in a bidding war for a student. Students are effectively commodities, with very little bargaining power. .
On the other hand, colleges do have the authority to make adjustments to a student's financial aid package in cases involving unusual circumstances through a process known as Professional Judgment.
Understanding the Process
Regardless of whether you call it negotiation or professional judgment, it is important to understand how the process works in order to maximize the amount of student aid. FinAid has an extensive section devoted to the topic of professional judgment from the perspective of the financial aid administrator. Here are some of the key points:
How to Ask for Professional Judgment
Professional judgment is initiated by the family writing a letter to the financial aid administrator at the school asking for a "Professional Judgment Review". At some schools this is called a "Special Circumstances Review". The letter should summarize the unusual circumstances and include copies of the documentation. The letter should be short and stick to the facts, instead of burying them in a long-winded plea for help. The financial aid administrator may ask for additional information and additional documentation.
Do not include the letter with your original FAFSA application, as it will be discarded. The letter should be sent separately to the student's college.
Some people who promote the idea that you can negotiate with colleges recommend that the student and not the parents contact the school. The reasoning is that the student is the one seeking help, not the parents, and it is harder to say no to a student who desperately wants to be able to attend the college. Unfortunately, although this probably doesn't hurt, it doesn't help either. The negotiation process with colleges is driven by documentation of special circumstances, not emotional appeals.
Schools that Negotiate
An unpublished survey of 1,492 colleges conducted by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the College Board found that only 1% of public colleges and 2% of private colleges frequently or always adjust financial aid packages to reflect other college's offers. The survey also found that 5% of public colleges and 10% of private colleges adjusted financial aid packages in response to the family's stated inability to pay.
This indicates that although very few schools "negotiate", there are nevertheless a handful that do. Most of those that do use a rigid policy to determine when they will match other school's financial aid offers. Usually the schools will only match offers from a limited number of schools that the college considers to be its peers, i.e. similar quality schools for which the college competes for students.
If you want to try negotiating with a school, present a better offer from a competing college and indicate that you will matriculate at the school if they will match the other school's offer. If the school is one of the few that matches other institution's offers, they will ask for a copy of the other school's award letter. They will compare it with their own financial aid package, and also the costs and student budget at each school.
The schools that will match offers from competing schools are open about the practice and encourage the students to submit competing offers. For example, Carnegie Mellon University is famous for its willingness to reconsider its original offer. This doesn't mean you'll necessarily get a better offer after the second review, just that they are willing (some say eager) to take a second look in response to new information, including better offers from their competition.
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