Stop Overpaying for College

Have you seen the 2019 series of ads for eBay called When You’re Over Overpaying?  Try to get through the whole ad without smiling!  It’s a simple mashup of friends looking at price tags of items in different stores and cracking up after they see the price of that same item on eBay.  There isn’t a word of clear dialogue until the voice-over tag line at the end.

On the surface, the ad is just fun.  The giggles are contagious.  But underneath the snickers and spit-bursts of laughter is a truth that, after 20+ years of the internet, we almost take for granted.  Now that buyers have information and options, they have power.  And when sellers seem oblivious to that fact, buyers aren’t just surprised; they openly scoff at the seller’s foolhardy arrogance.

So why don’t we apply that same approach to the college search, and just scoff at the ridiculously high sticker prices that by now most of us know that very few students actually pay?  In fact, only about 1 in 10 freshmen pay the sticker price to go to college; everyone else is paying less – a lot less.  How much less?  Well, across all colleges and universities in the US, the average actual price (higher ed nerds call it the “net price”) is about 53% off that sticker price.

Three reasons.  First, the public has no access to real pricing information, so there’s been no good way to use price as a first-order filter to narrow your search.  Second, the public doesn’t think they have many options because the admissions process requires you to apply to an individual college (and pay to do so) just to find out your price at that school.  As a result, students eliminate 99% of their choices before knowing whether the price tag they are going to be asked to pay is something they can afford.

Those first two reasons fuel the third.  In the absence of power or options, students and parents don’t feel like they can shape their own destiny in the college search process.  As a result, this powerlessness  fuels a deep fear that one’s success in life depends upon the name on the letterhead of that acceptance letter.

But 40 years of research and thousands of life stories make it crystal clear that success in, and immediately after, college has everything to do with what you do in college.  The die is nowhere close to cast on the day you move into your freshman dorm.  If you’re the reflective type, you probably just thought to yourself, “. . . and thank god for that.”

But guess what?  We have power and we have options.  Today there are far more seats and beds at colleges and universities than there are students to fill them.  That is why the majority of colleges have not been able to meet their enrollment goals in the last several years.  As a result, most colleges are recruiting, accepting, and enrolling students all the way through the summer.  You know all that deadline talk and urgency language colleges have on their websites and acceptance letters about applications and deadlines?  That language comes from the same marketing folks who came up with, “Buy now and get a free set of steak knives!”

Of course, there are plenty of students for whom even the lowest college costs are still more than they can afford.  They deserve a lot more support than they get.  But for the rest of public who, although they can afford the prices that some less-known colleges would charge them, choose to pay exorbitant prices for a brand name and then complain about the cost of college: Stop overpaying for college!  Although you may not have known it, when you fall for that “dream college” sales pitch, you help to maintain a system that is not only driving many students and families to borrow far more than they should, it’s strangling many lesser-known colleges that get branded as crazy expensive and just as out of touch as the nationally known schools that got us into this mess.  Meanwhile, those lesser-known colleges are often the ones offering students an impressively competitive price for an excellent educational experience, all without a massive endowment to prop them up.

You want college prices to come down?  Stop overpaying to get into a school that is no different than a hundred other colleges that would offer the same student a place for far less money.

Well, you might ask, how are you going to find out which schools are the ones offering the lower prices?  Join a community of thousands of students sharing information to one place so that everyone can find a college that really is a financial fit

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