Don't pay sticker price for college

If you don't ask, they won't offer. But if you are clear and direct -- and you target the right college -- you just may be able to walk away with a bargain.

By Lynn O'Shaughnessy

When you're shopping for a car, you and the salesman on the dealer's lot both understand that the sticker price is meaningless.

You could say the same thing about college tuition. Sure, colleges would prefer that you pay full fare, but they will slash the price for the right kids. In fact, the typical private school routinely cuts its tuition by 33.5%, according to the College Board. And even the less expensive public universities are offering an average break of 14.7%.

Not every student will qualify for these blue-light specials, but it would be an expensive mistake to assume that only those with fabulous SAT scores cash in.

"The golden rule is this: If you don't ask, you won't get the money," says Rick Darvis, CPA, who is founder of the National Institute of Certified College Planners. "The key is knowing that this cash is there and positioning for it."

Here are 11 ways to increase the chances of getting your share of the money:

Check out financial aid. Even before cracking open any of those fat college guides, you'll want to have a pretty good idea of whether you'll qualify for financial aid. Why? Answering the financial aid question before you begin shopping for colleges and universities is crucial because then you'll know which kind of schools you can approach for those discounted prices. To see where you stand on the aid issue, use the Expected Family Contribution Calculator at

Search for great financial aid packages. If you'll qualify for financial aid, cozy up to generous colleges. "Look for schools that meet 75% to 100% of need," recommends Paula Bishop, a CPA in Bellevue, Wash., who counsels families on admission strategies. You'll want to focus on schools that stuff their financial aid packages with grants -- they don't need to be repaid -- rather than loans. You can look at a school's loan-vs.-grant split by visiting and clicking on an institution's "Cost & Financial Aid" link.

Amherst College, for example, is among the elite private schools that are extremely generous: It meets 100% of a family's financial need. Amherst's cost is $45,652, but the average aid package is $33,274 and, of that amount, 89% is outright grants. For students who qualify for this much aid, a private school could end up being cheaper than an in-state public institution. In contrast, New York University typically meets only 64% of a student's financial need, Bishop says. And 41% of the financial aid that NYU generally provides is loans and work study.

Look for merit cash. Affluent families who won't qualify for financial aid should hunt instead for schools that shower kids with merit money. Some schools will routinely award merit money to kids who are among the top 20% or 25% of their applicants. Plenty of colleges and universities post their scholarship requirements on their Web sites. Baylor University, for instance, has installed an online scholarship calculator on its Web site for prospective students. Type in your class rank, number of students in your class and your SAT and/or ACT scores and it will instantly tell you how much merit money you might receive. Seventy percent of a recent Baylor freshman class earned merit money.

Read college strategic plans. This might sound like a waste of time, but checking out these statements at college Web sites can trigger a cash bonanza. Many schools will lavish merit money on kids who can help them with their own institutional wish lists, says Carolyn Lawrence, an independent college counselor in San Diego who is the creator of, a college admissions blog. "Sometimes there is very specific information in the strategic plan, such as 'we want to increase our test scores,' so you know that kids with higher test scores for the school will be pretty desirable," Lawrence observes. Other schools might say that they want to increase their geographic or racial diversity.

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Sometimes you'll have to read between the lines to figure out a college's admission priorities. "If you see a school, which is not known for the sciences or the arts, that is investing money in building a multimillion-dollar science or arts facility and the president is talking about building a reputation in those areas, it's often a good bet that a student interested in those areas or with special talents will be desirable," Lawrence says.

Continued: Shop around

Check out other time zones. Plenty of colleges are eager to embrace students who live far away because it helps boost their cultural and geographic diversity. A teenager from the Pacific Northwest, for instance, would likely grab the attention of an admission officer in the Midwest or the South. "California kids," observes Darvis, of the National Institute of Certified College Planners, "are in hot demand everywhere in the U.S. except the West."

Rethink reach schools. If you dread paying full price, resist falling in love with a reach school -- one where your chances of admission aren't good. If you barely make it into a college, the likelihood of an academic scholarship is just about nil. What's more, you might be stunned at how little financial aid you get. Plenty of schools will offer the best aid packages to kids that they covet. Students who are academically at the bottom of the entering class may just get the crumbs.

Play the gender card. Admission officers routinely struggle with this reality: Women far outnumber guys on college campuses. Teenage boys can take advantage of this by applying to schools where the boy-to-girl ratio is clearly out of whack. In an op-ed piece in The New York Times last year, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, the dean of admissions at Kenyon College, lamented that the school had to turn away qualified girls to make room for less-qualified boys: "We have told today's young women that the world is their oyster; the problem is, so many of them believed us that the standards for admission to today's most selective colleges are stiffer for women than men."

The gender gap, however, doesn't always punish girls. Engineering schools still remain bastions of testosterone. During the past decade, the admittance rate for female applicants at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been 17% higher than for men. "Well qualified women who are interested in engineering and science, who apply to the more specialized technical schools do tend to get some hefty merit money," Lawrence says.

Avoid lending gimmicks. Even with financial aid and scholarships, most families will borrow money. Many parents only consider lenders on a school's preferred lender list, but that's a mistake. The continuing college lending scandal has revealed that colleges don't always promote lenders for the right reasons.

When shopping for loans, beware of lenders who promise price breaks years from now. Lots of lenders generate business by offering to slash interest rates on federally subsidized loans by 2 percentage points if there are no late payments for 36 to 48 months. This might sound like a great deal, but Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of FinAid, which is a comprehensive financial aid source, estimates that only 3% of borrowers ever earn that rate reduction. And here's more bad news: By the time one of these elusive discounts does kick in, it's only worth 0.63% because of the passage of time. "It's all extremely complicated and difficult for families to interpret, and I think that's part of the idea," Kantrowitz says. To compare these loans, try out FinAid's loan discount analyzer.

Borrow from the no-names. You'll find many of the best loans at obscure lenders that are run by nonprofits or government-based agencies. The rates are often significantly lower than the private institutions. You don't hear about these deals because these lenders don't enjoy the marketing might of a Sallie Mae or CitiBank. These nontraditional lenders include All Student Loan in California, the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority and Brazos Higher Education Service Corp. in Texas. Some students can walk away with even better rates if they major in a field that a state wants to encourage. Missouri residents, for example, who are planning a career in law enforcement, social work and other public service careers could recently borrow money from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority for a mere 0.5%.

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You can find a list of nonprofit and government-based lenders on the Web site of the Education Finance Council, which is a trade organization. While lenders usually reserve their very best rates for their own residents and kids attending schools within their state borders, students from elsewhere in the country are welcome too.

Play sports at small schools. Sure, it would be wonderful if a college coach offered your child a full-ride athletic scholarship. Less than 1% of kids, however, win an athletic scholarship. That doesn't mean, however, that you can't get money for being an athlete. Consider looking at Division III schools. Families often overlook this division, which contains hundreds of smaller schools, because they don't offer official athletic scholarships. But these colleges do provide athletes with other types of financial assistance, including so-called talent scholarships, says Scott Brayton, founder of the Varsity Student Institute in Bellevue, Wash., which assists athletes who want to play collegiate sports. "Colleges," he says, "can pull all sorts of things out of a hat if they want kids."

Lastly, negotiate your award. What happens if your child received money from college, but it's not enough? By all means appeal, but don't use the word "negotiate," because colleges hate that term. Remain dispassionate when you request more cash because aid officers are also turned off by emotional parents. Be specific in what you want; don't just say it's not enough. Share with the aid officer how much you need and how much you can realistically afford to borrow. If you can provide financial documentation, all the better. You'll also want to approach the school if your financial circumstances have changed -- a parent has become disabled, lost a job or is caring for an elderly relative.

Published Aug. 1, 2007