How to Get a Big Break on the Cost of College: Just Ask

Josh Mitchell:

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated a yearslong shift in bargaining power away from colleges and toward families, which are quite prepared to treat tuition as they would a car’s price: something to haggle over.

When a college accepted Frances Marcel’s second child several years ago, she pleaded for a discount. It wouldn’t budge, she said, so she dipped deeper into her savings.

After her third child Ian was accepted by his top three choices for this fall, she urged him to write them in early March asking that they go lower. In April, each offered him further discounts. One offered about 41% off.

Ms. Marcel, of Rockland, Mass., told Ian to appeal again to the other two. “Mom, that sounds too aggressive,” Ian told her. She answered: “Really, you have nothing to lose.” Ian, 18, emailed appeals to the two schools and waited.

Such negotiating is part of what has become a technological arms race. Many colleges customize tuition-and-aid offers to extract the maximum from each prospect without driving the student to a rival campus. An industry of enrollment-management consultants uses computer algorithms to advise administrators on each prospect’s “price sensitivity.”