Last month, we featured a post titled, “Tuition Discounts Offered as Merit Aid” about the common practice of colleges to provide partial merit scholarships, or discounted tuition. There are two reasons why this has become routine at mid-tier schools as a way to attract and enroll high-achieving applicants:

  1. Colleges need to enroll high-achieving students each year to maintain their academic reputation, and
  2. Many colleges are fighting declining enrollment and use offers of discounted tuition to entice more qualified students to matriculate at their school.

In the previous post, we advised students to use the Common Data Set (CDS) before selecting the schools to which they’ll apply. The CDS enables them to identify the colleges that are most inclined to discount their full price of tuition by offering partial merit scholarships. These colleges can then be favored in the fall when choosing best-fit schools.

The following spring, there’s often a need to compare the financial aid packages in the award letters from the colleges that have accepted the student. TuitionFit is a free tool that facilitates this comparison. It enables students who have been admitted to a college to find out how much that college is discounting tuition for similarly qualified applicants.

A Common Problem of Applicants

Students who apply to college in the early admissions cycle and are accepted receive award letters in January and February. Regular admissions applicants receive their award letters in March and April. Award letters state the financial aid that is available to that specific student. Many students receive award letters from multiple colleges and they need to compare them in an orderly way to select the best one.

Typically, students are at a disadvantage when they compare award letters. For example, they have no basis for comparison in determining whether a college’s merit scholarship offer is fair. A student doesn’t know if they have received a smaller award from a college than other applicants who are in similar financial circumstances and have similar academic records. Knowing this would help students make the best possible choice among the colleges that have admitted them. In addition, this knowledge could provide leverage if a student chooses to appeal a college’s financial aid award.

What’s a Fair Offer?

TuitionFit is an online platform that enables a student to compare the financial aid package, including the merit scholarship award, that he or she received from a college against the verified aid packages offered to other students. In return, students use a secure portal to upload to TuitionFit one or more award letters that they have received from colleges. TuitionFit pools financial aid offers to create a clearinghouse of actual price information.

Students also upload basic personal information such as their test scores and high school GPA. They provide a summary of their financial circumstances in the form of the Student Aid Index (formerly known as the Expected Family Contribution) that was determined through the FAFSA process. This is the amount that a family is expected to pay annually toward their child’s college education.

TuitionFit scrubs all personal information and organizes award letters to aggregate anonymous student profiles and award letters by college. The result is a collection of real price information. Students who share their award letter(s) with TuitionFit will get to see the real financial aid information that was offered to other students.

One drawback of the TuitionFit methodology is that students can only see price information from award letters that have been uploaded by other students. They may not include all of the colleges that interest them. Nevertheless, TuitionFit has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times, Forbes, Money, Education Week, and CNBC.

How Students Can Use the Information

Students use TuitionFit information to compare the net price that they are being asked to pay compared to the net price offered to similar students. They can do this for every college to which they have been admitted. Armed with this information, a student may try to work with a school to obtain a lower price than the one offered in their original award letter. Requesting a better price from a college is allowed and is usually a good idea. There’s no downside as long as it’s presented as a request and not a negotiation. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

In searching the TuitionFit database, a student may find attractive colleges that are offering admittees a net price that they find more budget-friendly. They may wish to apply to such schools even though it’s well past the deadline for submitting applications. Although they don’t publicize this fact, many colleges are open to receiving applications as late June because they’re still trying to enroll qualified freshmen to fill open seats.

Can Juniors Use It?

The CDS enables students to identify the colleges that are most inclined to offer discounted tuition to high-achieving applicants. However, time must be devoted to CDS research when it is most precious. It would be ideal if juniors and first semester seniors could have ready access to net price information before they submit applications.

The problem is that these students don’t have award letters to contribute. However, TuitionFit has an option that is helpful to them. It enables them to see net prices from all colleges from which TuitionFit has received award letters in the past two years. A student can filter the list by their preferred price range and other factors.

Examples of the Benefits of Comparing Financial Offers

In the admissions cycle of fall, 2017, Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern University posted the following total annual prices on their websites:

• Boston College – $70,588
• Boston University – $70, 302
• Northeastern University – $67,957

Middle- and lower-income students with excellent academic records, in considering these three institutions, may have decided that they couldn’t afford to attend any of them, so they didn’t apply. However, according to data reported by those institutions to the U.S. Department of Education in 2018, the actual average price paid by enrollees at these institutions was as follows:

• Boston College – $26,567
• Boston University – $29,154
• Northeastern University – $34,246

So, for example, if a student didn’t apply to Boston College, they would never have known that the effective price dropped by $44,021 from the website price to the average price.

For students from families with incomes that didn’t exceed $30,000 annually, the average actual prices that they would have been charged by these institutions was as follows:

• Boston College – $7,251
• Boston University – $15,661
• Northeastern University – $12,168