Sleep Easy: What College Admission Officers Won’t Tell You

According to a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, private colleges and universities are trending toward raising their tuition “discount” rates despite annual increases of the “sticker price” of attendance. Did you know the average private college’s discount rate reached 48% in 2014?

This tuition “discount” rate makes the enrollment process more akin to shopping for a mattress than
choosing a higher learning institution. This steep discount is offered by using institutional grants that largely come from tuition revenue. Does the old saying about “robbing Peter to pay Paul” apply? Let’s take a closer look at the current process of “shopping” for a private school.

A tale of three mattresses

Buyer #1, an undergraduate applicant in Chanel couture clothing, walks into UberSleep (private college) to buy the perfect mattress (education). The salesman (admission officer) shows the buyer the Hypnos Luxury Mattress with the inflated sticker price of $15,000. The buyer immediately buys the Hypnos because she can afford it and believes the mattress is worth it. Her inner monologue: “I’m spending almost half my life in bed, and this mattress is an investment.”

Buyer #2 walks into UberSleep to buy the perfect mattress wearing clothes she purchased on a discount rack at Marshall’s. She sees the sticker price of the Hypnos and walks out, resolving just to buy a good mattress from Target for a fraction of the cost. In education, she may settle for a less competitive college than she might be able to attend, just because no one has explained to her the way this game gets played.

Buyer #3 walks into UberSleep and falls in love with the Hypnos, but he can’t afford it. He advocates for why he is the perfect customer and convinces the UberSleep salesman to offer a 48% discount. He positions himself as a future advocate for the store, as someone likely to bring more money in the future as the result of the excellent restful nights he’s experienced. The mattress, although still expensive, is sold.

Spike and discount

How is this possible? The mattress salesman can offer the cut because the sticker price of the mattress is inflated in the first place (not to be confused with an inflatable mattress). The first buyer paying the full price allowed enough revenue to offset Buyer #3’s attendance at zero profit.

This “spike and discount” trend has been a staple of the private institution enrollment process and has been increasing since 2008. And it doesn’t seem to be abating any time soon.
Here’s why this should make you mad: it’s a form of lying. It unfairly requires students and parents to play a game as if they’re haggling at a street fair when the future is at stake.

Know your options

The problem for countless potential undergraduate applicants is that they resemble Buyer #2. Many highly qualified high school seniors are deterred from applying to private schools where they would thrive and find academic fulfillment because the “sticker price” of enrollment seems unmanageable. They either cannot afford or simply won’t pay the hefty premium of an “elite” education. They don’t want to risk a potential rejection letter from a dream school because of their inability to pay the tuition in full.

My advice: DO NOT BE BUYER #2! If your dream school is a private university, apply. If your second choice is a private university: apply. If your safety school is private . . . you guessed it: apply! Like any good “salesman,” these enrollment officers need their bottom line. Enrollment and revenue are down for many private colleges, so you’d be surprised how many seemingly unattainable schools are willing to work with you.

The cult of prestige

So many of the elite institutions need to keep enrollment numbers up so they can maintain their ranking and prestige. These numbers partially rely upon the quality of academic achievement within their student body and how many admitted students become freshmen at their institution. Yes, the “sticker price” of a private school is exorbitant, but now you know the tricks of their tuition trade.

As millions of private school college freshman can attest, requiring assistance for your education does not necessarily influence your chances of admittance. These schools are spiking their sticker tuition so that they can offer discounts in the form of grants to excellent applicants who cannot afford to enroll. Yes, private institutions need tuition revenue, but they also need an academically competitive and well-rounded student body to keep their ranking. If you are within the target range of admittance for a school that you believe you would like to attend, don’t let the advertised tuition deter you from getting to attend your dream school.

Aside from scholarships and institutional aid offered through a specific institution, there are many opportunities to obtain additional aid. You can apply for a federal or state grant (“need-based aid” does not need to be repaid); a federal or state scholarship (“merit-based aid” also does not need to be repaid); or a federal or state loan.

As we head into college application season, please keep in mind that the “ticket price” is not where you want to focus. Building your future is not about money, it’s about fit. I trust you’re a more informed consumer—please join me on my website for more insider information to help you on your way to college admission.

Happy shopping!


Pamela Donnelley is a 20-year educator and the founder of GATE College System; co-developed by 26 Ivy League educators that’s committed to increasing equitable access to higher education and improved post-graduation outcomes for underprivileged 9th-12th grad students across the country. GATE is partnering with public high schools nationwide to provide its platform gratis to 50% of disadvantaged, at risk and first generation students, and in partnership with nonprofit JAG.org has been embraced by 34 high schools in 7 states this spring, with major districts now lining up for pro bono access for its disadvantaged student population.

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