College pricing now mirrors holiday retail sales pitches

Marian Wang | 1/10/2014, 6 a.m.
You know all those seemingly great sales during the holidays? It turns out, they are often a "carefully engineered illusion." ...
After a “tuition reset,” Concordia University found that the lower rates increased student applications, raising enrollments and, ultimately, net tuition revenue. Drew Geraets via Flickr

You know all those seemingly great sales during the holidays? It turns out, they are often a “carefully engineered illusion.” A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal defines what it calls “retail theater,” noting that often the discounts being offered to bargain-conscious consumers are carefully planned out by retailers from the start:

The common assumption is that retailers stock up on goods and then mark down the ones that don’t sell, taking a hit to their profits. But that isn’t typically how it plays out. Instead, big retailers work backward with their suppliers to set starting prices that, after all the markdowns, will yield the profit margins they want.

The red cardigan sweater with the ruffled neck on sale for more than 40 percent off at $39.99 was never meant to sell at its $68 starting price. It was designed with the discount built in.

Some retailers that sell online even set their discounts depending on user information, as the Journal reported last year:

The Staples Inc. website displays different prices to people after estimating their locations. More than that, Staples appeared to consider the person’s distance from a rival brick-and-mortar store, either OfficeMax or Office Depot. If rival stores were within 20 miles or so, Staples.com usually showed a discounted price.

Higher education may seem like a different world, but universities in many ways have been working from the same playbook.

Savvier college-bound consumers know that the so-called “sticker price” of tuition and fees at a given college or university isn’t what many — or even most — students pay.

Take American University, where 74 percent of full-time freshmen got a grant or scholarship — essentially a discount off the list price — for the 2011-2012 school year. Or Drexel University, where that figure was 98 percent.

At nearly 200 schools, 100 percent of full-time freshmen got a scholarship, as DePaul University’s Jon Boeckenstedt points out.

A recent study of discounting at private non-profit colleges found that the average institutional grant has grown as a percentage of sticker price, hitting an all-time high of roughly 53 percent. But the report, released in May by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, also pointed out that while larger discounts are generally a good thing, students could still end up paying more depending on how much the sticker price is going up at the same time.

Like retailers, colleges and universities are increasingly getting more sophisticated about how they give out discounts, offering so-called “merit aid” to students they especially want to enroll.

Private universities have led the way in discounting, but as we’ve detailed, the practice has spread to public universities as well. Many state schools have moved toward the “high-tuition, high-aid” model by discounting for students with high test scores or for out-of-state students who will ultimately pay more than residents, even with a small discount.

Some colleges — mostly private colleges — will even price-match if students know to ask. (It’s not unlike your local Best Buy, really.)