When a College Says their Offer is “Just Between Us”

Most higher ed folks push back hard when anyone says that college admissions is just like buying a car. After all, a college education doesn’t depreciate the moment you drive it off the lot. And any university worth its salt gets its students all the way to graduation. It doesn’t just sign them up for a loan, hand them a key, and wish them luck.

To be fair, I agree that this comparison is a bit harsh. In two decades of working in colleges and universities, I’ve only met a handful of admissions counselors who gave off a car salesman vibe. And no, not all of them wore a bowtie or a plaid sport coat.

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So it just kills me when we see shady sales tactics in a financial aid offer letter. Case in point: check out this financial aid offer from a respectable college in the Northeast. As always, we block out all of the private information, and in this instance I’ve also blocked out the actual dollar amounts because I want you to focus on something other than price.

Read the text inside the circled paragraph. In particular, take a look at the second sentence. Just in case you can’t make it out on your screen, it reads, “The offer contained in this letter is confidential and should not be disclosed to third parties.”

On God’s Green Earth, WHY?

This is the kind of stuff that makes the college admissions experience feel EXACTLY like buying a car from a stereotypical greasy used car salesman. The college is asking an applicant they have just congratulated with an acceptance letter, and invited to join their community, to voluntarily remain in the dark about one of the largest purchases his or her family will make.

The Truth about College Admissions

This little request to keep a financial aid offer “just between us” highlights the reality that every family needs to know before they start the college admissions process.

Colleges don’t want you to know everything that they know. They don’t want you to know when they need you more than you need them, and they certainly don’t want you to know when you need them more than they need you. They also don’t want you to know that prices vary and that they are often negotiable. They’d rather you didn’t know that you have any power to influence your final price.

But don’t think this means that colleges and universities are some evil cabal. It just demonstrates that they are normal sellers trying to get you to be an excited buyer. In the simplest terms, colleges want you to be an emotional buyer. You need to be an empirical buyer.

If there’s one thing you need to know before you start down the college search road, that would be it. Know that colleges are businesses selling a product that they want you to want enough to pay a lot for it.

And there is no better “tell” then when a financial aid offer letter says that this offer is “just between us.”

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