Can you negotiate the cost of school tuition and fees for your child? Short answer: Yes. And bonus: Now is a great time to do it.

An image of a backpack filled with school supplies.
Credit: Getty Images.

I asked parents in my neighborhood what they knew about negotiating their kid's school tuition. The answer I got across the board? Gasps and blank stares. "You can negotiate it??" they all asked. Yes, friends. You can negotiate what you pay for your child's school. And the even better news? Now is a great time to do it.

Good negotiation takes the needs and desires of both parties into account. What you want is for your child to be in an ideal educational situation for a reasonable price; what the school wants is to recruit great students and meet enrollment goals for years to come. And the COVID-19 pandemic has made enrolling in private schools a buyer's market.

"The point of my [private] school is that they are completely and totally custom for each child," says Heather Huston, a parent of a high school student who is on the autism spectrum. Huston had previously sent her daughter to public schools, but the size of the high school class setting was not feasible for her—a reason many parents of special needs children find themselves looking for ways to afford private school.

When COVID hit, the school went virtual, which eliminated the customized school experience her daughter needed. "It was a really difficult fourth quarter," Huston says. "And it was exacerbated by the fact that I was still paying my monthly tuition."

That's where the negotiation came in.

Huston knew the school was struggling. Annual fundraising had been cancelled and enrollments were down across the board, many of the parents finding themselves in the same difficult place as Huston.

Huston went to the school director and explained that their family wanted to stay. Huston and her daughter both loved the school and its staff—but they needed to be realistic. "I couldn't pay full-time tuition for two more years, even with the scholarships we had received," she said. She was clear on her budget.

The school cut her a deal—they would cut tuition costs in half and agreed to freeze those tuition costs for the following two years. It turned out, the school wanted to keep Huston and her family as much as Huston wanted to keep the school.

You, too, can have a happy ending to your school tuition woes. Here are some ways to make your desired school affordable for your family.

1. Ask for a lower price

Never assume there is no wiggle room for you to negotiate. In a private school setting, you are a customer, and the school is a business. They need to fill classrooms with good students and you need your child in a good school. When meeting with school administrators, ask what your options are to make school more affordable for your family. You might just get what you ask for.

2. Negotiate the payment schedule

Many families may not be able to afford a lump sum tuition payment all at once, but can afford to pay month to month. Ask your school if paying on a monthly basis is an option for you.

3. Pay up-front for a discounted rate

If the school already offers a monthly tuition rate or payment plan, offer to pay the entire annual tuition up front for a discount. Many schools are happy to receive full payment up front and may be willing to accommodate a discount in exchange for less hassle.

4. Apply for financial aid and scholarships

Many schools offer need-based financial aid as a way to widen the socioeconomic diversity of their student population and benefit as many families as possible. According to Juliet Douglas, the Director of Admission and Financial Aid at the University School of Nashville (where one in four USN students receives financial aid to attend) any parents seeking financial aid should make sure to apply as early as possible. Douglas notes that families who apply for aid after admissions decisions have already been made will likely go on a waitlist. "Which we only occasionally get to," she says. Never assume you can't qualify for financial aid or scholarships. As Douglas says, "It never hurts to ask."

5. Look for sibling discounts

Schools are hungry to fill their classrooms with "known" families. If you have one child already enrolled, and now their younger sibling has come of age, ask your school about a potential sibling discount. Your school may be pleased to know they can count on your children's attendance for years to come and be happy to offer a lower rate.

6. Barter a work-trade agreement

Some schools may be willing to offer discounted tuition in exchange for necessary services provided by the families. Are you a graphic designer and can offer to create marketing and advertising for the school? Maybe you're a top-rate project manager and offer to coordinate the next annual fundraiser. Whatever your talents and abilities, see if there's a way to exchange them for discounts. We'll say it again—it never hurts to ask.

7. Be an active member of the school community

Never underestimate the power of good karma. Maybe you can afford tuition this year, but another year may be different. Go ahead and build that good will now so you'll be in a place of good standing with the school should you ever need to negotiate. Chances are, they'll do whatever it takes to keep your family enrolled if you've demonstrated reliability, enthusiasm, and kindness.

In fact, let's go back to Huston's story. At one point, her daughter's sought-after school had offered to cut her tuition in half. But that wasn't going to work for Huston. "Our financial situation had improved," she says. She kept thinking about the other families who might not be as lucky. She went back to the director and offered to pay 75% of the tuition, rather than 50%. "I felt like we needed to be a good part of the community and do what was fair." Fair enough.