Visiting colleges like a parent teaches you a great deal about the sales process that college admissions officers use to attract the best possible freshman class. It’s a sales process because the work that college admissions officers do is very much like real estate sales people do when they sell model homes in a new development or when they time shares to a popular vacation resort.

Imagine you want to buy a brand new house in a new development. You will see a sales office in one of the model homes, each room and the garage decorated as most potential buyers would want to decorate their own home. So are the other model homes that you see. The sales people are well-dressed. They don’t push you too hard at first. They try only to get your name on a card to say that you’re interested. And they give you a brochure to take home that shows each floor plan as well as the “special financing opportunity” offered by their preferred lender. The brochure not only shows you pretty pictures, a floor plan, and the financial information. It also shows you an overwhelming list of extras that you can add to “build” your new home.

The goal for the first step in the sales process is to get you to visit again, unless, of course you’re ready to pick your home and your plot and hand over a deposit that day. But for most people, the sales office will not get the deposit until after the second or third visit. By then the customer will have chosen their extras, the colors and the plot. They have to keep in touch, make sure the customer is informed of the progress on their house as it is built. The deposit might be non-refundable, but the customer can still back out anytime before the closing.

In this process the sales office has to sell not only the home, but also the community as well as themselves and co-worrkers as people that the buyer can trust. The buyer is making a huge investment and wants nothing less than a beautiful home in move-in condition. The process is fragile, and the sales people know it. It can break down due to circumstances that they cannot control. The buyer’s financial circumstances could change. S/he might find that they liked another house better and give up the deposit. S/he might be unhappy with the developer’s progress on the new house and give up the deposit.

The sales process in college admissions is not so different.

Potential buyers are gathered at a nicely-equipped visitor’s center. They are shown photos or renderings of signature buildings on campus. Quite often they are shown renderings of new buildings such as a residence hall, student center or recreation center that are under construction, to be open in time for the next freshman class. They are often shown floor plans of residence halls, especially when there are options at several different prices. Like the real estate brochure, the college brochure shows pictures of happy people sitting under trees or by lakes, playing sports or just hanging out at the clubhouse, aka the student center. They also receive information about financing, only they get in trouble if they mention a preferred lender. On the tour the potential buyers see a model room as well as the amenities that the senior admissions team wants them to see.

College admissions officers, like the sales people at the development, do not push you to deposit or say yes that day. But they want you to fill out a card, expressing your interest, so that they can keep in touch. Next they want to get your application for admission. If that is approved they try to work with you on the financing. They hope they give you the right price so that you will say yes. But they invite you to visit again if you’re still not sure, even inviting you to choose extras (living in a learning community, chatting with potential roommates online) before you commit.

It’s not uncommon for college admissions offices to receive deposits during the Accepted Students Days that they host on campus. And, those, like the ones you pay when you buy the new house, are not refundable. However, there is still a chance that buyers have buyers remorse and send a deposit elsewhere.

The sales processes of colleges and real estate developers are not too different, and:

  • The paperwork to get a student enrolled in college is no less complicated than it is to buy a new house. There is a lot of financial terms and legal jargon. Only you don’t usually hire a lawyer or financial advisor to help you enroll your son or daughter in college. But good financial advice is strongly recommended. You do not want to pay more in costs or interest than you should.
  • The admissions offices and the real estate offices sell not only the “experience” of living in a community, but also a package of services that are performed by people. Poor customer service from inside and outside the sales office caused the sales process to break down.
  • Pricing is a function of demand in housing as well as college admissions. Real estate developers want to sell houses to buyers who will pay the highest possible price. College admissions offices are, more often than not, need aware. They are most willing to assist the neediest candidates who are also among the most able academically. But as they admit lower down in the pool they prefer to get students who do not need financial assistance. The more popular a school, the more likely it will attract families who do not need discounts.
  • Colleges, like new houses, have markets with all sorts of prices, and the price information is not always clear. In both cases it’s wise to figure out what you afford before you’re sucked into the imagined experience of living in the community.
  • Ethics are reinforced, however they often fall by the wayside in both sales processes. Double-depositing with colleges is widely scorned, but it becomes more common when popular schools go to wait lists to fill their classes. You can also be on the wait list for the next phase of a housing development while you have a deposit at your second choice.

If you’re about to embark on this adventure and you have bought a new condo or house in your lifetime, you are better prepared for the college search, and for working with college admissions offices, than most college-going families.

You’ll recognize the sales process after one or two campus visits. Only this time you might be asked to commit more money with less time to repay the debt.


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