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Published: Mar 31, 2016
tug of war
Let the games begin!
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When students who have been admitted to college ask advice from Lynn O’Shaughnessy, she’s quick to help them take a next step many didn’t know was even an option: haggling over the price.

A higher-education author and consultant, O’Shaughnessy suggests that students leverage favorable offers of financial aid and discounts they’ve received from some colleges and universities to win a better deal from others.

“There are plenty of schools that will say, ‘Okay, scan over your offers so we can see them,’” O'Shaughnessy says. “And they might match it or do better.”

As college acceptance season has kicked into gear, and students and their families begin to receive financial-aid offers, higher-education officials report that more of them than ever are negotiating.

“It has become something that’s almost expected,” says Tom Green, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Related: Rising Costs Brings New Focus on How Exactly Colleges Set Their Prices

That’s in part because, as college costs have increased, consumers are becoming more aware that college “sticker prices” aren’t necessarily what most students pay. And with enrollment flattening out and even falling, institutions—especially private, nonprofit colleges that are heavily dependent on tuition—have become more willing to cut deals to fill seats.

The number of students at colleges and universities dropped for the eighth semester in a row in the fall, down nearly 2% from what it was at the same time the previous year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks this.

In that climate, Green asks, “How do you get those brilliant students if you're not offering something to incentivize their enrollment? Unless your market position is so strong that students who come to you gladly pay full price.”

So while average published tuition and fees are up 20% since 2008 at private, nonprofit four-year universities, the College Board reports, the actual net price students pay has increased a much slower 4.4%. And while those institutions list a published price of more than $32,000 per year, on average, full-time students actually pay an average of less than $15,000.

This kind of tuition discounting is at an all-time high, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), which reports that the average discount is now nearly 50% for freshmen. At many private nonprofit colleges and universities, a large portion of families that appeal their initial offers get more money.

Related: How to Ask Your College for a Bigger Financial Aid Package

While negotiating for a lower price is now more common, it’s wealthier students whose parents also went to college and understand the system—or who have savvy college counselors in private or suburban high schools—who are often most likely to know about it.

“Some people go, ‘Oh, I got $15,000 or $30,000’ in financial aid or discounts,” O’Shaughnessy says. “‘Is that good?’”

Lower-income and first-generation students don’t always know to ask for more, their advocates and others say, even as they are already put at a disadvantage by high tuition.

“Those are the students who are the most likely not to know how to negotiate,” Green says. “They’re likely to be poorer, more in need of aid, and they're likely to be less sure and less confident about going to college in the first place. And so what is really difficult in that equation is that they are the students who, if they got just a little more, might be able to go to that school and might be able to stay at that school long term.”

Nor do all universities and colleges make it easy for them. While some offer students their best and final offers right off the bat, Green says, others will initially hedge. That way if students ask for more, the college can come through. But if students don’t, “then there's more net revenue to improve the university,” he says.

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The low-income, first-generation California students served by the nonprofit organization Bright Prospect, for example, don’t always know they can appeal a financial-aid offer, Ari Damasco, its database and scholarship coordinator, says.

“They tend to receive a financial aid package and just receive it as the given,” Damasco says. “It is surprising for them to hear that we could help in trying to advocate. In fact, when we do advocate for students, I've encountered some students not feeling very optimistic about anything coming from the process.”

In most of his cases, however, Damasco says he has been able to work something out on behalf of his students, whether that means more money up front or an easier payment plan.

Though some schools are trying to make their published prices more in line with what people actually pay, including the University of Maine and Rowan University, most private nonprofit institutions advertise high sticker prices few students end up paying.

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And while the practice is not inherently damaging, if institutions cannot offset the cost of discounts with other revenue streams, that can cause problems.

Thanks in large part to discounting, NACUBO found, net tuition revenue at 411 private, nonprofit four-year colleges and universities it surveyed has slowed significantly.

“You can really be in trouble as an institution financially very, very quickly,” Green says of schools that rely too heavily on handing out such breaks.

Many are trying to compensate for this and balance their books by raising scholarship money, leasing out their facilities, and offering graduate programs that make money, says Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges.

“A rising tuition discount rate is not a good thing but it has proven to be much more controllable by being offset by other sources of revenue,” Ekman adds.

Many colleges and universities have figured out the balance, Green says. But the ones that haven’t could be in trouble.


This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.