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Sometimes I wonder if colleges could learn from appliance stores.

Like many community colleges, we’re enrolling now for Spring classes. Some students sign up as early as humanly possible, in order to get the exact schedules that they want. Many don’t. 

The former -- the early birds -- make sense intuitively. If they fully intend to return in the Spring, and they don’t see any colossal barriers to doing so, then getting an early jump to get the perfect schedule is a rational way to get the most bang for the buck.  For many students on financial aid, the aid is packaged for the academic year, so someone who started in the Fall shouldn’t face a barrier to early enrollment for the Spring.

The latter are the trickier cases. Why do so many students who apparently intend to return take their sweet time registering?

From the institution’s perspective, it would be vastly preferable if more students signed up early. With fuller counts early on, we’d have a better sense of which sections would run, and where we’d need more or fewer.  It would also make budgeting easier, since we’d be better able to project tuition/fee income.  It might also improve student success, since students would have more time to arrange work and transportation around class schedules in advance.

Apparently, though, many students who don’t have fully packaged financial aid put off registering so they can put off paying the bill.  They’re looking towards the Christmas holiday, and hoping to have enough money in December to get through it.  Paying tuition in November would make that harder.

And that’s where I wonder if appliance stores (or furniture stores, or..) have something to teach us.

In the retail world, “no payments for 90 days” is a common gimmick for getting people to buy.  The idea is to separate the pain from the gain, and to put the gain first.  Economists can protest all they want about the irrationality of that, but judging by the ubiquity of the gimmick, it seems to work.  If it works for sectional couches, it should work for sections of English.

I’m wondering what would happen if we used “no payments for 90 days” as an incentive for early registration.  Miss the cutoff for “early” registration, and the rule defaults to paying upon registration.  Register first, and you get to pay last.  That way, the student’s incentive would align with the institution’s.

I’m guessing that the major barrier preventing widespread adoption of “no payments for 90 days” in higher ed is the specter of no-shows.  A student who ponied up the money upfront has something at stake; a student who didn’t might be likelier to develop second thoughts.  That’s less relevant in the case of appliances; once the washing machine is delivered, there it is.  No-shows would defeat the institutional gain of better planning.  Instead of guessing which empty seats would eventually fill, we’d have to guess which filled seats would actually turn out empty.  In a sense, that’s actually worse.  At least in the case of obviously empty seats, we wouldn’t have to turn anyone away.  I’d hate to turn away prospective students because no-shows took their seats.  In that scenario, nobody wins.

Has anyone out there tried a variation on the “no payments for 90 days” gimmick in the context of early registration for classes?  If so, what happened?  Did students respond to the incentive by registering early, or did it just pass unnoticed?  And were no-shows an issue?  Any hard-earned observations would be appreciated.

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