Master the Art of Negotiation

Melissa Maichle .

We don’t always think of it as such, but most of our interactions with students or their parents are in fact a negotiation, whether it be an appeal for more financial aid, the waiver of a late payment fee or re-grading of an exam. One party is asking the other to do something they are not naturally inclined to do – thus a negotiation must ensue. As employees of the institution, we do have the upper hand since we never have to do what is being asked, but what is the cost of that? A complaint to the president’s office? The same student returning to your office over and over trying to get a different answer?? Loss of the student to another institution all together? Wouldn’t it be better if you could be partners working to solve a shared problem rather than adversaries with only one winner?

In their book, Getting to Yes – Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, authors Roger Fisher and William Ury provide four principles that if applied, will enable both parties to leave the negotiating table with what they need. We’ve restarted those principles below and added relevant examples of our shared experiences as aid administrators.

“Separate the people from the problem”

Ask questions to understand the other party’s perceptions of the problem and use active listening to really understand the issue. Sometimes, what is being asked is that person’s perception of what will solve their problem, and you may be able to offer a better solution that is more amenable to your institution.

“Focus on interests, not positions”

Students regularly appeal for additional scholarship, but their interests in doing so vary greatly. One may have exhausted all possible loan options and still can’t pay tuition while another is being pressured by their parents who want to be able to proudly say that their child is at your institution on scholarship. While the positions are the same (more scholarship), the interests couldn’t be more different.

“Invent options for mutual gain”

This is where both parties need to get on the same side of the table. You and your student who can’t pay tuition have a shared interest – the student remaining enrolled – so use your expertise to not only identify financial aid resources but also to tease out any family resources the student may have not considered. To compile a comprehensive list of options, both parties must be engaged.

“Insist on using objective criteria”

On a college campus it’s likely the most common criterion is precedent – what have we done for other students in this situation? The instructor being asked to change the grade on an exam isn’t likely to do so, but perhaps has helped other students struggling with the class by assigning extra credit work. In addition to federal and state regulation, the financial aid office has its policy and procedures manual which should outline how particular situations should be treated.

Simply stated, take the time to talk to the student or parent to find out what they really need and allow them to participate in the process of coming up with possible solutions. Then use your training to determine the option that is best for both the student and your institution.

Did you know that the Higher Education Assistance Group offers a variety of training opportunities and services that can create efficiencies and allow more time to counsel students and families? You can learn more here or email us at