Last week I made an unexpected purchase. I bought a new car. My travels to schools had put a lot of wear and tear on the one that I traded in. I have been a car enthusiast most of my life, though I really hate the sales process as well as the paperwork involved in getting a new car. This time I was fortunate to work with a very good salesperson, a Rutgers grad like myself. After I came home with my purchase, I thought about how choosing a college was a lot like shopping for a car. The exercise of choosing a college versus committing to the next car is not all that different.
When you buy a new car you go into a slick-looking showroom. Bright, shiny new cars are spread throughout, usually equipped with add ons that the dealer wants you to buy. These add ons, some nice like wheel locks, some unnecessary like a chrome exhaust finisher, can raise the price of the car by more than you’d ever want to pay.
But no smart car buyer ever pays the full sticker price. Just like families who are choosing a college.
When you shop for a new car you can find price guides that tell you what the dealer pays for the car, any bonuses that the manufacturer might be offering to the dealer to help them to sell the car, and any incentives that a buyer can take advantage of to pay as little for the car as possible. You also know what the dealer pays for those add-on accessories. And you can go to the Kelly Blue Book Web site to get an estimate of the value of your car to a dealer as well as the price that you might get if you sell the car yourself. The past three times that I have bought a new car, I brought this information into the negotiations. Given the choice between selling a car and letting me walk the dealer sells the car on my terms.
Colleges refer you to “net price calculators” as well as a number called “average net price” to give prospective students and their parents some idea of what they’re likely to pay for the first year of college.
However, since college is a future purchase–the student might not be on campus for another year or two–the numbers that you will see are at best, a best guess of the price that you will pay, less incentives that the school might offer.
Colleges are sold a lot like cars. But there are some differences.
The major difference, of course, is that most people who need a car are likely to buy more than one or two through their lifetime. Most families commit to a college in the hope that they will need to work with only one college.
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