5 Dos & Don'ts of Negotiating College Financial Aid Offers

With college acceptance letters flooding seniors’ inboxes and mailboxes–and the May 1st deadline to commit to a college on the horizon–families want to know if the financial aid offers they’ve received are truly colleges’ best offers.

Every year, we walk many families through the negotiation process to appeal below-average offers from schools. As part of our financial services, we analyze your financial aid offers and help identify your best opportunities for successful appeals. This process typically takes place in late March and early April.

Most of our seniors are still waiting on final offers from colleges … but in the meantime, here are some important dos and don’ts to prepare you for what’s ahead!


1) Talk about competing offers. Colleges are much more willing to work with you if they know you’ve received better offers from competing schools. This is one of the reasons why we urge students to apply to a minimum of 8-10 colleges. You can make a stronger case in your favor if you can point to multiple offers from colleges that will cost less than the college you’re negotiating with. Some colleges will match competing offers if you send them copies of those financial aid letters.

2) Have a parent be the one to communicate with the financial aid office. When it comes to financial aid, most colleges want to deal directly with a parent. A parent is the best person to speak knowledgeably about the family’s financial situation.

3) Be patient. We know that when the end of the admissions cycle is so close, waiting can be difficult! However, it is well worth it to wait until the end of March or early April before beginning the negotiation process. Your chances of receiving additional aid are greater if you wait until you’ve received complete financial aid offers (not just scholarship letters) from every college on your list. That way, you can cite all of the competing offers you’ve received, boosting your chances of receiving more aid.

Furthermore, in April, many colleges will have a clearer idea of how much additional money they can offer students. Colleges who are seeing a drop in enrollment numbers at that point are also more likely to do what they can to woo students who are still making up their minds. Over the years, we’ve consistently seen that families tend to be more successful in their negotiations as we get closer to that May 1st deadline.

4) Express interest in the school. Colleges are more willing to try to work with you if they think you’re genuinely a good fit for the school. Remain professional and polite for the best results. We usually recommend starting the conversation by thanking the college for admitting your student, talking about how excited your student is to attend, and then asking if there is anything more the college can do to make it more feasible for your family to finance your student’s college education.

5) Go in with reasonable expectations. There’s no quick and easy secret to going to college for free. If you’ve met with a member of our financial team, you’ve already received a full report on your estimated college costs (check your white binder). In most cases, your financial aid offers will put you within the estimated range. Sometimes, colleges will offer more if they are very excited about a particular student, which is why we do so much work to match the right student to the right college. But while it never hurts to ask if a college can offer additional aid, there is no guarantee that you will receive what you’ve asked for. If a college’s enrollment numbers are up, they may not have any additional aid to offer. Some colleges don’t offer merit aid to begin with. Every school is different, and every year is different. The financial aid evaluation report we give you will help to evaluate your best and worst offers and highlight opportunities for negotiation.


1) Complain to the financial aid office before you’ve received your official financial aid offer. Don’t jump the gun! Again, we know waiting is hard, but some colleges will release financial information in pieces over the course of a few months. You may receive an initial scholarship offer in December, another scholarship offer in February, and your complete financial aid offer (which includes scholarships, grants, loans, and work study) at the end of March. Wait until you have all of the information you need to make the best case possible for requesting additional aid.

2) Pay all of your deposits right away. If you’ve already paid your enrollment and housing deposits, a college is not very likely to negotiate with you. They already know you’re coming, so they have no need to further entice you to commit. The best thing that you can do is to be patient and wait until all of your offers are in.

3) Compare yourself to friends of friends of friends. It’s never a good idea to base important decisions off of a rumor you’ve heard about your friend’s neighbor’s babysitter’s cousin. It is highly unlikely that this most-likely-imaginary person got into Harvard with low grades and SAT scores and somehow got an amazing scholarship offer even though the parents make a ton of money. Even if it were true, it wouldn’t mean your family is guaranteed to have the exact same outcome. Stories like these make the rounds every year. People like to brag, people like to shock and one-up each other, and people like to make themselves seem better off than they really are. Every year we have families complain to us that “less worthy” students were accepted into a particular college over their child or that “less deserving” families received more money than they did. But you don’t really know the details of everyone’s lives. Every family’s situation is different, and it’s a waste of time to compare yourself to rumors you’ve heard through the grapevine.

Instead, we focus on the actual data we have based on your family’s financial information and colleges’ historical averages. We will use those numbers to determine how your student’s offer compares to average offers for students with similar GPAs and test scores from previous years. That lets us clearly see which of your offers are fair or unfair.

4) Lie. Some colleges will require you to send copies of the financial aid offer letters you’ve received from other schools before they will adjust your financial aid award. Don’t waste your time–and other people’s time–by making up numbers.

5) Threaten. Colleges do not have to award you the amount of aid you want. Colleges can rescind an offer of admission, although that usually happens only in extreme situations. It’s very easy to avoid being in that position. In the world of college negotiations, hostility and aggression will get you nowhere. As long as you remain polite and professional in your communications with colleges, you will have the best possible chance of working with a college to make the costs more affordable for your family.

Need help with this process? Still trying to figure out how much college will cost and how you will pay for it? Click here or email cps@enspherecps.com to schedule a meeting with someone from our college prep team!