When my son was accepted into Penn State for grad school, we learned he could negotiate the offer. He got an additional $52,000 in funding.

When my son was accepted into Penn State for grad school, we learned he could negotiate the offer. He got an additional $52,000 in funding.
Ann Peck and her son.Hannah Peck Cowles
  • My son was accepted into Penn State for grad school and offered over $25,650 a year in funding.
  • We later learned we could negotiate that, and he earned an additional $52,000.

When my son, Reese, decided to apply for Ph.D. programs in mechanical engineering, I was thrilled — and nervous. Academia feels like the perfect fit for my 22-year-old son, but the cost of tuition kept me up at night.

But after we negotiated more funding for him, Reese is headed to Penn State with his tuition fully covered — including a research-assistant stipend, which is enough to cover his living expenses.

When he got his first acceptance letter, we glimpsed a future without student-loan debt

As an undergraduate student, Reese studies mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and works in a research lab. We were thrilled when his first graduate-school acceptance letter came from it. Since I live in Minnesota too, I had visions of Sunday dinners, spontaneous lunches, and surprise visits home for the next five years.

His letter came with a fellowship offer of $30,300 a year, which means he would be fully funded. Until he received that offer, we didn't realize it was possible to attend graduate school without incurring student-loan debt.

"They're going to pay you to go to school, and you don't have to pay for tuition," I repeatedly said. No one in our family could stop smiling.


He received 2 more acceptance letters, so he had a big decision to make

Penn State offered him $25,650 a year in funding.

After attending recruiting events at all three schools and having the opportunity to visit with professors, Reese knew he wanted to go to Penn State. But it wasn't the university with the largest financial package — even though the school would also cover tuition remission and health insurance.

Reese had already determined he would not go anywhere that didn't offer enough funding to cover all his expenses. He did not want any student debt.

I asked my son to consider negotiating Penn State's offer. He refused; other graduate students had told Reese that offers couldn't be negotiated. I wasn't buying it. I've realized nearly everything is negotiable, but admittedly, this was an area I knew nothing about.

I sought guidance, and he was able to negotiate more funding from Penn State

I'd taken a few classes from Vicki Johnson, the founder of ProFellow, and knew she specialized in helping people find fellowships for projects, research, and graduate-program funding. I emailed ProFellow, explained the situation, and paid for a $350 session with Johnson.


Reese discovered negotiating was not only possible but also often expected. Using what he learned from that session, he followed Johnson's advice and personalized an email to the professor he'd be working with at Penn. He outlined his best offer and his desire to select Penn State if it could match the offer and consider additional funds for the summer.

He scored another $52,000 in funding from Penn State, to be paid out over five years. He'll now work toward his Ph.D. as a fully funded candidate. His deal is worth over $325,000 — which includes funding from a fellowship, an RA position, and tuition remission.

Sunday dinners and spontaneous lunches will have to wait. He starts working in the lab at Penn State in July.