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Colleges are now offering substantial tuition discounts due to the pandemic. You just have to ask.

Families willing to haggle are requesting—and getting—big tuition discounts on fall admission this year as the pandemic has put colleges at a disadvantage.

Colleges are now offering substantial tuition discounts due to the pandemic. You just have to ask.
Cover Image Source: The Catholic University of America on September 17, 2015, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

While the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc in pretty much every other aspect of life, it has reportedly shifted bargaining power away from colleges and towards prospective students. According to The Wall Street Journal, families willing to haggle are requesting—and getting—big tuition discounts on fall admission this year as the pandemic has put colleges at a disadvantage. The American Council on Education, a university trade group, predicted in April that college enrollment would drop by up to 15% nationwide this fall. Meanwhile, Moody's Investors Service said this month that although enrollment will rise, families will seek out lower-cost options.



 

 

This shift will bring about a 5% to 13% reduction in what schools earn from tuition, room, and board this fall. This loss of billions of revenue dollars comes on top of shrunken endowments, fewer international students, and public-funding cuts due to the Coronavirus outbreak. With the economy suffering and unemployment near the highest since the 1930s, families are thinking twice about spending heavily on tuition. Although there has always been a certain degree of negotiation involved—with the former offering custom tuition-and-aid offers to extract the maximum from each prospect without driving them to a rival campus—now the pandemic is prolonging the haggling.



 

 

About 400 colleges and universities moved their traditional offer deadlines from May 1 to June 1 and some have even extended them to September 1. Christopher Lydon, vice president for enrollment management and marketing at Catholic University, revealed that compared to last year, 20% to 30% more families are appealing for bigger tuition discounts. The school reportedly refunded existing students for room and board this spring, on top of which it has offered substantial discounts to this fall’s incoming freshmen—almost $500,000 more than last year's freshman class.



 

 

Before the pandemic hit, Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, had raised tuition, room, and board 3.5% to $77,000 for this fall's freshmen. Later, on March 25, Bucknell sent varying tuition discounts to prospective students "based on a federal formula calculating each family's financial 'need' and an enrollment-management consultant’s pre-pandemic algorithm," states the Wall Street Journal. However, as the recession dealt a serious blow to families' finances, in April university leaders canceled the tuition increase altogether. Meanwhile, some families—particularly those who lost their jobs or have small businesses that suffered due to the pandemic—pushed for additional discounts, said Bill Conley vice president for enrollment management.



 

 

"We've already seen as costs of private education are in the mid-$70,000 range that those with the technical ability to pay are increasingly questioning their willingness," he said, adding that COVID-19 "is worsening that." Ms. Vasconcelos of Massachusetts, a consultant with the firm Bright Horizons College Coach, explained that in a typical spring, about half of her clients get discounts averaging $3,000 after asking for money. Since the pandemic, "we have seen almost no schools saying no," she said, revealing that the discounts now go up to $5,000 and above.



 

 

When 17-year-old Sanjana Shriram of Winchester, Massachusetts, was accepted into the University of Miami for this fall in March, she was offered no discount off the $73,000 annual cost since her parents earn too much to qualify for need-based aid. However, when her father, Shriram Venkataraman, pressed the school for merit aid in late March, the school responded on April 17 with a $5,000 discount for each of four years. Keeping in mind that private colleges like Miami might be struggling to enroll enough students during the pandemic, he replied, "This is great. I really appreciate it. It would really help us make the numbers work over four years if we could get another $5,000 from you guys" for each year. Miami declined his second request, he said, but Sanjana plans to attend anyway.

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