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Decisions, Decisions: How to Negotiate a Better Financial Aid Offer

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By Katie Schellenger, J.D., Director of Legal Professions Advising

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It’s that time of year again: the flowers and trees are budding, the birds are chirping …. well, not so much this year.  BUT, the law school acceptances are starting to roll in.  Congratulations to those of you who have received law school acceptances – your hard work in school, on the LSAT, and in crafting a perfect law school application has paid off!  For many of you, however, the most difficult part of the process is just beginning: decision-making. 

Having a number of law schools to choose from is a great problem to have; it can, nevertheless, present a dilemma.  Making a decision about which law school to attend is far from clear-cut.  There are many different factors which affect applicants’ decisions: geographic location, connection with the school, specific program options, law school rank, post-graduation employment placement, and – last, but not least - MONEY.  For many applicants, money is the deciding factor in which school they will attend.  The impact of debt upon your career cannot be underemphasized: it will dictate the kind of employment you can – or must – find after graduation, and is likely something you will carry with you for many, many years. 

The good news is that there has never been a better time to seek aid.  In 2012, law schools gave out nearly $1 billion in financial aid according to Fortune Magazine, and this is a figure that has grown every year.  In 2007, for example, just over $721 million was dispensed.  This has become even more pronounced in the past year: law school applications have been dropping, and law schools are offering more financial aid to attract desirable candidates.  As the executive director of Law School Transparency explains, law applicants now have a “bargaining chip,” and applicants across the country are using that bargaining chip to successfully negotiate aid packages.     

How can you negotiate your aid package?  First, evaluate the schools to which you have applied and prioritize them in order of preference.  Try to identify a clear front-runner.  Your top school will be the one with which you want to lead off negotiations because, presumably, if you receive a substantial aid offer from them your decision will be made.  Second, as your acceptances – and aid offers – roll in, keep track of how much aid you are being offered by each institution.  If you receive a substantial offer from a school that is not your first choice it can be an excellent way to leverage more aid at the school that is your first choice.  It is also helpful to calculate what your cost to attend a particular school will be (including cost of living).  You may receive similar amounts of aid from different schools, but depending upon the cost of tuition and cost of living expenses, one offer may be of greater value.  This is another way to leverage competing offers.  For these reasons, it will behoove you to wait until you have received all (or most) of your offers before you begin negotiations.  Third, take stock of your other assets: if you have an LSAT score or GPA that hits or exceeds a school's median number, you are in a good position to ask for additional funds, regardless of what other offers are on the table.  Finally, when you open negotiations with a law school, always do so in a professional and polite manner.    

Once you open negotiations, you should be prepared to 1) voice your excitement about admission to the law school, 2) disclose the amounts of aid you have been offered and which institutions have offered it; 3) emphasize the other items you bring to the table: i.e., your LSAT, GPA, etc., and 4) ask – in a professional way - for what you are seeking.   Number four is often the most difficult (read: uncomfortable) part of this process.  An easy way to open negotiations is to share all relevant information with the school, and then ask if they can do anyting more for you. This puts the ball in their court and arms them with the information they need to know that will constitute a competitive offer.  If the school is your first-choice, you could opt for a slightly more aggressive approach, and tell them that you are committed to matriculating if the school can match or exceed your other offer(s).

Please make an appointment with Katie Schellenger, Director of Legal Professions Advising, if you would like to create and/or discuss your negotiating strategy.  These are difficult and important decisions, but they are also exciting.  And remember, regardless of how difficult these decisions may seem, you have worked hard to provide yourself with these opportunities and you should congratulate yourself on a job well done!   

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