A couple of weeks ago an article in the “Your Money” section of the New York Times encouraged high school seniors and their families to engage in what the article described as an “annual ritual” in the college application process, appealing financial aid packages. The article quoted a certified public accountant in New York as claiming that a family might cut $5000-$10,000 off their tuition bill with a little “strategic haggling” prior to May 1, and even suggested that families consider hiring a professional haggler.
I found several things about the article misleading and even troubling, but I also know that I tend to be naïve and idealistic, which sometimes masquerades as bemused cynicism. I’m not ready to accept that financial aid appeals are an “annual ritual” or that families should believe that haggling a normal part of the admissions process.
Paying for a college education has become a greater challenge as the cost of higher education outstrips family incomes, and in the past five years or so I’ve seen economics determine students’ college choices more often and more significantly than used to be the case. That usually involves choosing public in-state options over private or out-of-state public universities rather than renegotiating financial aid.
The Times article suggests that the increasing use of tuition discounting (or what is often euphemistically referred to as “merit aid”) means that colleges are more amenable to haggling over price, but I’m not sure the two are connected. In my experience tuition discounting (which may be well over 50% at many tuition-dependent private colleges) takes place at the front end, with the exception of a few schools trying to stay alive. Is that about to change? I hope not. I don’t want paying for college to resemble buying an automobile.
The other contention in the article that doesn’t smell right is that the last two weeks of April are timely for trying to negotiate with colleges. It is true that colleges are under pressure to make the class, but the implication in the article is that a pool of scholarship dollars becomes available as students turn down the offer of admission and financial aid package to attend a different institution. That’s like assuming that a college will take a student off the Wait List for every admitted student who doesn’t enroll. I haven’t worked in a financial aid office, but in my experience that’s not how financial aid works. Please feel free to correct me if I’m off base.
I’m also bothered by the suggestion that families should think about hiring a “haggler” to help negotiate. Parts of the article read like an infomercial for independent educational consultants, reporting that the number of full-time independents has grown by more than 400% in the past decade. I want to be clear that I am not bashing independent college counseling, which is a legitimate part of our profession. It’s the implication that one must hire a consultant to haggle that I am questioning.
The most interesting question posed in the article is whether the early FAFSA and the advent of prior-prior year data will increase the number of financial aid appeals. Is the downside of prior-prior that the aid evaluation system will not have the ability to respond to dramatic changes in a family’s financial situation that occurred in 2016? And how will colleges deal with those situations? Will they be fluid in adjusting aid packages to take into account changed circumstances or will they conclude that those changed circumstances will come into play a year from now?
I have written about this issue before (more eloquently than I am now), and changed financial circumstances is one of three reasons for which I would advise a student to appeal a financial aid offer. A second would be when another college has a more generous financial aid offer, recognizing that one institution might be more willing to give merit aid to a particular applicant than another. The third is when finances are an impediment to a student’s attending his or her first-choice college. The college may or may not be able to do anything to help the student, but I want the college to be aware.
What I don’t want is students and families haggling with the sole goal of getting the lowest price possible. College is a huge investment for families, second only to buying a home, and cost is an important consideration, but the real issue is the relative value of the college experience among the various options a student has.
Buying socks at Walmart or Costco should not be the model for choosing a college. The college process may seem bizarre, but it shouldn’t resemble a bazaar.