$15,000 saved on college by not settling!

Note: Due to security and privacy concerns, some non-essential details have been changed.

Billy, a TCK (third culture kid) that I know recently made some major changes following his freshman year in a US college. Because Billy was changing majors from Chemical Engineering to Linguistics, the hard-earned STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) scholarship which his college provided went up in smoke. The loss of that $5,000 per year scholarship meant his missionary family’s aggressive saving for college over the years might not be enough to get him through college debt-free. Not to worry, because his Dad and Mom were well-aware of our articles on the college search and our “FAR game-plan” with the steps:

  • Finding a comparison college,
  • Annotating the family’s special circumstances and
  • Relating to the financial aid office.

Let’s see just how far the “FAR game-plan” will take them.

Finding a comparison college

While continuing to hope that Billy could stay at his existing college (which we’ll call BU for Beginning University), the family immediately looked for a CC (Comparison College). It was important that CC would be acceptable to Billy (and his new major) and that it would be considered a comparison school by BU. Our friends over at College Assistance Plus are great at finding such colleges, but you can sometimes easily figure this out on your own.

There were a lot of emails, calls and conversations about the quality of the schools, on-campus and off-campus housing, etc., but we’ll limit ourselves to the financial conversations here.

One pre-requisite of financial importance was that both BU and CC needed to offer a path to finish the degree in a similar amount of time. When transferring to a new major or new school, students are almost always set back a bit. BU, the school that our TCK, Billy, was attending, could still help him graduate in the four-year time period. CC, however, initially showed that their requirements wouldn’t allow him to finish in that same span of time. That conversation went back and forth, discussing which credits would transfer and which required courses would be covered. Conversations with Admissions led to submissions of syllabi to the Registrar. Ultimately, the Dean of Accreditation at CC stepped in to pave the way for a 4-year graduation plan. Thus, they had BU (Beginning University) and CC (a solid Comparison College) both in play.

While Billy’s family never used threats, ultimatums or even the word “negotiation,” they did respectfully inform BU that they’d felt the need to apply to CC due to the loss of the $5,000 STEM scholarship. Even while Billy was in the process of applying to CC, they too were similarly informed that staying at BU remained the easier option. Both schools knew that financial support was going to be an important part of the decision to transfer or remain. In other words, BU and CC were both aware that the family had completed the first step of the FAR game-plan by Finding a comparison college.

Looking at the “list price,” subtracting scholarships and financial aid, but not subtracting loan amounts, it was time to compare the initial bottom line. At this point, staying at BU without the STEM scholarship would cost Billy’s family about $26,000 per year. CC’s initial award letter provided a cost of about $27,500 per year. Remember those numbers, because they are both going to drop!

Beginning University (BU)Comparison College (CC)
Initial Offer$26,000$27,500
Colleges can sometimes change your FAFSA calculations based on their professional judgment.

Annotating the family’s special circumstances 

By Annotating the family’s special circumstances, we are stressing the importance of explaining things that might make your FAFSA numbers look bad. Some examples are: “We live abroad where we cannot own a home so our net worth appears higher than it is,” “We live in a high cost-of-living location,” “We have to pay for private schooling for our kids from K-12,” etc. Colleges can sometimes change your FAFSA calculations based on their professional judgment.

BU was unconvinced by these kinds of special circumstances. Their professional review did not result in any change to their use of the FAFSA numbers. CC’s initial response was similar. However, when they were informed of how much Billy’s parents were paying in foreign taxes, CC’s professional review resulted in about $1,500 in extra funds per year. That placed CC at roughly the same $26,000 price tag as BU.

Beginning University (BU)Comparison College (CC)
Initial Offer$26,000$27,500
FAFSA-based Reduction-$0-$1,500
New Offer$25,000$25,000

Special circumstances might also mean past experiences that would qualify Billy for some aid or a particular field of study or vocation that would garnish him a scholarship or two. So, the family then looked for new scholarships that might replace all or part of the lost $5,000 STEM scholarship. They asked both schools, but nothing was immediately forthcoming. They inquired directly with the Linguistics department of the colleges. CC’s had no scholarships to offer. BU’s Linguistics department didn’t want to lose Billy, so they offered an annual scholarship of $3,000 if he would stay! Bingo! BU is the financial winner, right?

Well, by this point, Billy had become more and more interested in CC, so the inquiries continued at both universities. When BU realized that they were indeed in danger of losing this student, they “found” another $2,000 scholarship from one of their endowments. BU just dropped to a discounted $21,000 per year. Suddenly, the lost $5,000 STEM scholarship had been completely replaced by a $3,000 Linguistics scholarship and a $2,000 endowment scholarship. Coincidence or persistence? You decide.

Beginning University (BU)Comparison College (CC)
Initial Offer$26,000$27,500
FAFSA-based Reduction-$0-$1,500
Major-based Reduction-$3,000-$0
Endowment Reduction-$2,000-$0
New Offer$21,000$26,000

This led to another conversation with CC to say that BU had just made an offer that would be hard to turn down. The new BU number of $21,000 per year compared very favorably to CC’s $26,000 per year. The final question was asked: “If Billy really wants to attend CC over BU at this point, is there any scholarship that could be found to cover part of the difference?” The admissions counselor made a few calls. An additional $3,000 scholarship was granted to try to seal the deal with Billy.

Beginning University (BU)Comparison College (CC)
Initial Offer$26,000$27,500
FAFSA-based Reduction-$0-$1,500
Major-based Reduction-$3,000-$0
Endowment Reduction-$2,000-$0
Admissions Counselor’s Reduction-$0-$3,000
New Offer$21,000$23,000

With CC now costing $23,000 per year (down from $27,500) and BU costing $21,000 per year (down from $26,000), which will they choose? This may surprise you, but even Vagabond Finances knows that not everything is about money. Despite the higher price tag, they ultimately chose to move Billy to CC, but either option was much better than the initial offer.

That’s why we never settle for the first offer from an American university!

Relating to the financial aid office

Does all of this communication above need to take place in a combative way? No. Do you need to make this a straight-up negotiation? No, in fact, US colleges generally claim that they cannot outbid each other. However, there is nothing wrong with – and something to be gained by – being polite with the financial aid officer who represents the schools you are looking at. You are asking for special consideration by Annotating the family’s special circumstances and you are asking them to kindly consider the amount of money you personally will save if your child goes to their university versus another.

We’ve found many financial aid officers and admissions counselors to be kind, to be understanding, and to become personally invested in getting students like Billy into their schools. It never hurts to have an admissions counselor or financial aid officer figuratively pounding the table, saying, “There must be more we can do to get Billy into this school!”

In summary

It’s appropriate to end this post with a “summary” because a nice sum was certainly saved here. Billy and his parents refused to settle for the first-blush offer by either school. As we’ve noted elsewhere, the “FAR game-plan” works! Just by asking, BU came up with another $5,000 per year to keep Billy in school. And, just by asking, CC found an additional $4,500 per year.

Beginning University (BU)Comparison College (CC)
Initial Offer$26,000$27,500
New Offer$21,000$23,000
Annual Savings$5,000$4,500
Savings over 3 Years$15,000$13,500

That’s an additional $13,500-15,000 in cash that stays in Billy’s pocket. He could use that to fund missions trips, buy a well-used vehicle, or visit his expat parents during Christmas breaks. All of those sound better than giving that money to his college, right?

Rather than settling for any initial offer, wouldn’t you rather go “FAR”?

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Mark Mason

Missions is my calling. Finances is my hobby. Helping you is my pleasure. "Mark" is my ultra-ego.