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If college bills have sneaked up on you, don't panic. Parents in the '90s have the best opportunity since World War II to bargain down the price of their child's first-choice college.

A quick look at the statistics explains why: The number of freshmen entering the nation's 1,810 four-year accredited colleges has fallen 6 percent since 1989 to fewer than 1.2 million, principally because of a shrinking pool of prospective applicants as the population of 18-year-olds has declined.

Roughly 2.3 million teens have graduated from public high schools each year so far this decade, down from a peak of 2.8 million in 1979; those numbers are expected to rise steadily after this year, reaching 3.1 million in 2008 when baby boomers' sons and daughters graduate from high school.

If you have a child going to college in the next few years, here's how you benefit:

1 -- Your child stands a better chance of getting into a good school than he or she would have only seven years ago.

2 -- Your odds of negotiating a plump financial aid package -- even if your family isn't needy and your kid isn't a star athlete or class valedictorian -- are better than ever.

"Colleges have had to wake up to the fact that there aren't enough students to fill the available spaces," says Tim Christensen, vice president of planning, development and administration for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators in Washington, D.C.

No one knows how many unfilled spaces there may be, since colleges can always cram a few more chairs into a classroom. But like airlines, colleges and universities would rather fill those seats for half price than let them go empty.

Of course, you can't expect a Harvard or a Stanford to be eager to dicker with you over price. In fact, it's becoming tougher to get into the 50 or so most highly selective schools. Chief reason: Students increasingly see a diploma from one of them as a ticket to a high-paying career.

Similarly, flagship public schools such as the Universities of California, Minnesota and Virginia are swamped with applicants and therefore less likely to deal.

On the other hand, says college consultant Howard Greene of Westport, Conn.: "If you're talking about the hundreds of medium- to low-profile schools, it's a buyer's market."

These colleges, which typically rank below the 200 or so most selective ones, are rolling out more pricing innovations than used-car dealers. For instance, Clark University in Worcester, Mass., offers a fifth year of free tuition toward a master's degree; Washington College in Chestertown, Md., awards a $10,000-a-year scholarship to incoming freshmen who were National Honor Society members in high school.

Other colleges are simply slashing prices to attract more qualified applicants. For instance, Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, and North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount, N.C., chopped tuition 29 percent to 23 percent, respectively, for the 1996-97 academic year. And increasing numbers of colleges are willing to haggle.

To get the best deal, plot your strategy early and follow these tips:

Have your child apply to a minimum of six to eight schools, including several on the same academic level. Application fees will add up to a hefty $200 to $400. But financial aid experts say this broadcast strategy will increase your child's chances of being accepted by two or more schools of the same type, enabling her to pit one against the other to get a better deal.

It's a good idea to apply to two or more safety schools too. Then, if your child is rejected by his top choices, he can play the same game with his fallbacks. And assuming his test scores and grade point average put him at the head of the pack -- say, a 3.6 GPA, vs. the college's incoming freshman average of 3.2 -- he'll also stand a better chance of winning a scholarship based on academic ability.

Make the most of your child's special talents or interests. Admissions officers may be on the lookout for particular types of kids -- say, prospective engineering majors or talented musicians or fencers. So when visiting a campus, be sure to ask what kinds of students the college most wants.

"For instance, a college's star cellist may be graduating," says Kalman Chany, author of the "Princeton Review Guide to Paying for College" (Random House, $18). In that case, if your child is a talented cellist, she may be offered a scholarship. Colleges kick in roughly $8.9 billion of the total $47 billion in aid doled out each year.

Don't jump the gun. Be cautious about applying for an early decision -- say, in early November rather than January. It's true that applying early can give your son or daughter a slightly better chance of getting into a school. Colleges accepted more early applicants than ever last year: 100,936 vs. 71,758 in 1991. Most early-decision programs, however, require your child to promise to enroll if accepted, although you can turn down the school's offer if the aid package isn't adequate. That means you lose your bargaining ability.

But mail your federal financial aid application early. Drop it in the mailbox just after Jan. 1, six months ahead of the deadline. While that won't boost your child's overall aid package, he or she may end up with a smaller loan, which has to be repaid, and a bigger grant, which doesn't. As Mark Fisher, an educational consultant with the College Planning Network in Atlanta, points out: "If you show up at the end of the line when a school is giving out grants, the pot could be empty."

Compare aid offers carefully. Acceptance letters typically arrive mid-March to mid-April, with financial aid offers following in a week or two. Read the fine print, stresses Mitchel Messer, managing director of the Academia Group in Atlanta. "For instance, you may get a $10,000 offer from two schools, but one could be mostly a loan and the other may contain a bigger grant."

If you think a top-choice school's offer is too low, appeal. If you want more need-based aid, call the school's financial aid office; for more merit-based aid, which comes out of the school's own funds, call the admissions office.

"The people in admissions are the ones who want your child most," explains Patrick Bellantoni, author of "College Financial Aid Made Easy" (IPG, $16.95; (800) 888-4741).

Follow up with letters and faxes, including copies of any documents -- such as a more generous offer from another school -- that can help make your case.

Plead financial hardship, if you can. Your chances of squeezing more money out of a school are best if you can convince aid officers that they underestimated your family's financial need. Remind them of circumstances, such as a sudden job loss or costly illness, that may qualify you for more aid.

Eric Gerber, a free-lance journalist in Houston, pulled out all the stops last spring to increase his daughter Lindsay's financial aid package from Hampshire, a small (1,100 students) liberal arts college in Amherst, Mass.

First, he told Hampshire (total cost: $28,890) that Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., had offered her significantly more need-based aid. He also pointed out that Southern Methodist University had proffered a package including a merit-based dance scholarship that would have cut its $15,990 annual tuition and fees in half.

And Gerber informed Hampshire that he had lost his job when the Houston Post folded back in April 1995. The school raised its offer 30 percent. "I'm so excited," says Lindsay, who started her freshman year this September. "I would not have been able to afford to go to Hampshire otherwise."

Make a direct appeal based on your child's merit. If your family can't qualify for need-based aid, you can still negotiate for more money because of your child's special talents or interests.

Ask an admissions officer to whom you should send a letter and when you can expect a response. The letter should restate some key points from your child's application, such as why your child badly wants to attend the school and what his or her many merits are, including a high GPA, excellent test scores and notable extracurricular activities. "You have to do a sales job," stresses Bellantoni.

For instance, Houstonian Jason Pattinian, 17, received a scholarship offer from Washington University (total cost: $26,410) in St. Louis earlier this year. But his parents, Harry, a podiatrist, and Merri, an art designer, thought the offer from Washington University was too low. So Harry called the school to stress that Jason was a member of the National Honor Society and had taken many honors courses in high school. WU responded by kicking in an additional $1,000 Perkins loan and $5,600 in gift money, raising its original offer from $13,025 to $19,625.

Keep a sharp eye out for errors. For instance, Ralph Gilbert, an art studio professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, was puzzled when his daughter Isabel received a $15,000 aid offer from St. John's College (total cost: $24,715) in Santa Fe and only $12,500 from Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, her first-choice school ($25,830).

"In a Kenyon brochure, several hypothetical families had higher incomes than mine and yet received more money," he says. It turned out that Kenyon's financial aid office had recorded Gilbert's income as $10,000 higher than it actually was. After Gilbert sent a copy of his latest income tax return to a financial aid officer, Kenyon upped its offer to $15,500.

Lock in the money for all four years. Schools sometimes offer generous packages to entering freshmen and then slash the amount in the following years. Or the colleges give freshmen smaller grants and bigger loans in their upper-class years.

Advises Brad Barnes, a college counselor in Denver: "Find out if the package your child is offered is for one year and what you have to do to keep it for all four years."

If there's nothing you can do to lock it in, ask what percentage of students actually get the same amount of money in all four years. If the proportion is less than half, you should be concerned. Whatever you do, negotiate hard, says Messer. "Your bargaining power is almost nil the next year," he adds, "because by then, college officials know they've got you."

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