Does Using Other Acceptances as Leverage to get more Financial Aid Work?

Stack of dollar billsA reader going by the name Coach left a comment disagreeing with my advice in answering the question, how many colleges should I apply to? in which I recommended students limit themselves to 5-7 choices. Coach made a very interesting argument, and suggested that applying to many more colleges may be a better route (click here to read his full comment):

I don't see any value in limiting students to a specified number of colleges. In fact, it's counterproductive. More college acceptances in a high numbers game generates 2 advantages: increase of the possibility of being accepted somewhere, and working with more leverage to get more financial aid by working several school offers against each other's.

You make a helpful point about using competing financial aid offers for leverage, Coach, but I have to disagree with you somewhat. Even with only 5-7 applications, students should still receive enough acceptances to provide this advantage (assuming they are reasonable with their acceptance expectations and self-assessment). There is no need to apply to 20 or more schools simply to have a dozen financial aid letters to throw in the other colleges' faces. The extra time and expense associated with additional applications -- even with the Common Application Form -- will not pay off in this regard.

Also, while your tactic may have worked a few years ago, it is becoming much less effective now. With the number of applications rising substantially, and with colleges' finances stretching thinner each year, universities have their pick in a large field of very qualified applicants. Many students asking for a financial aid boost will hear, "we're sorry, but we have reached our cap on financial assistance," even with leverage.

Many financial aid officers hate this technique, as well. You will find that some colleges even have strict polices against adjusting aid offers; however, some will if you know how to ask. But remember, a university is neither a flea market nor a Circuit City. Financial directors will become less accommodating if you use the word "negotiation", and they will absolutely not "price match", so avoid both terms. Offering to "bargain" or insisting upon your "leverage" are two more words to stay away from. What you should be requesting is a "review".

When asking for this review, do so in a formal letter rather than a phone call. This allows you to be more controlled in your correspondence and avoids financial aid representatives from falling back on a "I can't do that" script they have memorized. In the letter, thank the officer for his or her offer, and express great interest in the school and its programs. Then, show your worry about being able to meet your expected family contribution (or EFC). Explaining any special circumstances such as unemployment, death in the family, or medical bills should be done at this point as well. Finally, simply ask if they can provide any help.

Discussing exact dollar amounts of other offers, or mentioning how many colleges gave you better financial aid plans are generally regarded as boorish tactics, and often will hurt your chances. Maintain the tone of asking for help rather than threatening or boasting, and the reader will be much more likely to think of ways to meet your needs. You may make a brief, casual mention of a competing offer, but only in passing. The goal is not to appear as if you have expectations as a result of your other offers, but merely to express that your financial situation will have to play a role in your ultimate college decision.

Whatever their response, thank them for their assistance and move on. Pressing the issue will not help. Even if your badgering gets you an extra few thousand dollars for your first year, the aid office will most likely lower your assistance when they review your plan in the following years.

Be respectful, and eliminate words like "leverage" from your vocabulary. You're not at a used car lot, and financial aid officers hate being made to feel like car salesmen. You can ask for a review, but never try to "negotiate". And finally, to return to Coach's suggestion, it is never necessary to apply to additional colleges only to receive financial aid offers to later use to "bargain". This tactic worked in the past, but has no place in the modern admissions strategy. I maintain my advice to apply to 5-7 colleges, and to stick only to schools that you would really want to end up attending. Save your time and money by rejecting the old, outdated leveraging technique.

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