3 Higher Ed Lessons From Purchasing a New Car

The value of information and transparency.


July 7, 2013

Our family recently purchased a new car. We have a new driver in our home, and we needed a 3rd car to facilitate transport to after-school sports and events.  

That same new driver is also a rising high school junior, and as such has begun to receive a multitude of college brochures and mailings.  

This coming year will be the start of our big college selection process, and the timing of these two events (car buying and college shopping) have got me thinking about how these processes differ.

I'll venture 3 areas in which I think that we in higher ed can learn from the car buying experience:

Information Resources:

We ended up purchasing a 2013 Subaru Impreza 2.0i 5 door. The base model. Ice Silver Metallic.  

Selecting this make and model was relatively straightforward, as we had a wealth of unbiased reviews and comparative statistics to utilize in our research. We knew we wanted a car with all wheel drive (we live in NH), a hatchback (for cross-country skis), and good safety ratings. We didn't want to spend more than 20 grand.  

The web made our research and comparison shopping a snap. Plug all the information into Edmunds.com and you are given a list of cars that meet your specifications. A Google search provides a ton of independent and critical reviews from automotive journalists. Search YouTube and you can go on a virtual test drive.

Will we have anything close to the amount research and reviews when looking for the right college?   

Will my daughter be able to plug in her grades, scores, and preferences - and have a list of possible colleges be returned to her online?  

Do any journalists provide unbiased reviews of the learning and living experience across a range of college options? 

We were interested in the gas mileage and crash ratings of the cars we were looking at, what college data should my daughter be seeking out?

Pricing Transparency:

Buying this car was completely low stress. We came up with the price we wanted to pay by looking at Edmunds.com. We then called around to the local dealers until we found one that was willing to meet our price. No haggling. No negotiating. The actual purchase and picking up of the car was smooth and enjoyable.

Can the same be said for higher ed pricing? We have no idea what sort of merit or other scholarships or aid that may be available to my daughter. We have no idea what sort of aid or loan packages will be made available, and very little ability to predict how the admissions and tuition process will end up.    

It used to be that buying a new car was incredibly stressful. This was because the dealer had more information than the purchaser. 

A new car purchase felt like a game, one where the rules were always stacked against the buyer. The Internet changed all that.  

We can see what the dealer pays for the car, compare that against the MSRP, and ascertain the true market value. We can then take that information and determine which dealer gets our business.    It does not seem like the Internet has done much to level the playing field for college pricing.  

We have no way (that I know about) of sharing my daughter's grades, scores and preferences - and then sharing what we can pay each year for tuition - and having the various schools compete for her enrollment.  

Productivity Gains:

The last area that struck me in this whole car buying process was how much new cars have improved since our last purchase. We were able to get a really great new car for under 20 grand.  This car has all sorts of safety features that our old cars do not. More air bags. Better brakes. The ride is quieter. The fuel economy is much better.   

What is clear is that higher ed has not enjoyed the sort of productivity gains that we have witnessed with automobiles.  

Where cars get better and cheaper, colleges get better (I do believe that), but much more expensive. This is not news to any of you. 

Cars are a durable good. Colleges are an in-person service. 

Technological advances make cars both better and cheapr. Colleges are victims of the cost disease.  

Still - I can't help but wonder if our higher ed presidents are spending enough time studying auto manufacturing techniques.


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