David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Buyer's Remiss

November 27, 2022

I spent much of my Thanksgiving break buying a car. While the purchase had become somewhat urgent, I knew the day would arrive soon. I hadn't prepared myself much more than knowing that I would almost certainly pay cash and buy a used car, something I haven't done since I was 18 when I bought my brother-in-law's Buick. This time I had no family member to lean on, although the car dealer said several times that they are a family and want to treat me as such.

I mention all of this now not to get into the creepiness of "family" metaphors with businesses, but to use this buying experience as a moment of insight into how many people must feel when they decide to go to college.

I had done a little bit of research before going to a dealer. Given the urgency, I wasn't going to dawdle too much. Additionally, though, the amount of information to process quickly became overwhelming, both before I walked through the doors of the dealership as well as while there.

Online, I could find tons of information about each car. When I clicked on an individual car's specifications, I might get 150 specific details. If I was really going to compare those specifications, I would need a pretty complicated spreadsheet. I am not even sure what I would do with torque.

Think about the way college websites present the same kind of overwhelming information: programs, scholarships, net price calculators, student life features, testimonials. In the end, some element of familiarity, proximity, or subconscious appeal takes the college "shopper" to their school of choice. That is basically how I ended up picking a Nissan before I even went into a dealer.

I basically worked with two people, the "salesman" and the "business manager." Both repeatedly said they wanted to make this a quick process so that I could get out and "enjoy my day" or "do other things." That seems so caring and empathetic, although given I was getting ready to spend a boatload of money for a purchase that I would have to (hope to) live with for at least 5 years, there was probably nothing better I should be doing, nice weather or not.

I suspect, even subconsciously, the front line staff at most colleges and universities want to promise the same thing when a potential student inquires about enrolling. The longer that process from interest to purchase (what is sometimes called "the funnel"), the more likely the potential customer might just walk away.  It's one of the reasons so many colleges have resorted to one-stop offices where everything from application through financial aid through registration can occur while you guzzle the bottle water they offer you so kindly.

A corollary to this "we'll-make-this-quick" philosophy at the car dealer was the "we-appreciate-you" recurring transition whenever that person walked away from me. It's a statement that puts the onus on the customer to value the relationship. 'I better not walk away,' the customer thinks, 'that wouldn't be appropriate to that nice guy who appreciates me so much.' We know the art of sales is ultimately the art of language, and given that the average college recruiter is trained similarly to the average car salesman, providing a potential student a sense of "low pressure" is key. Is it any wonder that the Department of Education goes so aggressively after the predatory for-profits who do this lure better than the rest of us?

The problem with this "we appreciate you so much we want you out of here" is that amount of overwhelming information continues once through the doors (or back out for the test drive). My desire to pay cash, announced up front, reduced (I hope) the spiel I would have gotten about payment options, but there is still the constant upgrading. My business manager walked me through an extended warranty for 15 minutes before he laid down what additional money it would cost me. Classic strategy, as I would have stopped him after he showed me the cost (not that it was that much, but I had already committed to more than I thought I would have to, given little trade-in value for the old car). After awhile, in that artificial "family" environment, one really does want the hell out, good purchasing decision or not.

Is it any wonder that many new students, upon signing off on their tuition bill, are shocked by what seems to be the upgrade fees of textbooks? "Uh, I guess I will deal with that later," is a pretty typical response. Some places do fold the textbook fees into tuition, but I suspect many of us still don't because of some of the logistical headaches. A whole different blog could focus on my views about textbooks.

Additionally, the test drive is never really going to equate to the actual purchased experience, just like a campus tour, perhaps even a quick guest-in-a-class couple of hours will not replicate the 15-week, 2-semester, 4-year experience. The college, like that car, is completely cleaned up for the test experience, so you don't know how you will feel about it 2 months down the road (literal or figurative). Because ultimately the boatload of money isn't the commitment here, it's the boatload of time. Both the car salesman and business manager were interested in how long I expected to keep the car. "As long as I can." Next stupid question. I don't like buying cars, so sell me the best car to keep me from having to come back to your family (a predominantly white male family, I am noticing). I suppose, and here I may be stretching my comparison, the question of what do you want to do with your degree seems just as stupid to the potential student. "Get a job/Go to grad school/figure out my life."  Next stupid question.

In the end, I have had my "new" car for two days. I have already had my first potential "oh crap" moment. My car almost didn't fit in my garage (without me getting rid of a workbench). One of the many specifications I never considered was car length. This Nissan is a few inches longer than our Mazdas. What is the potential oops a student realizes upon the first day of classes? 8:00 am classes?

Who knows what else awaits our decisions, new student and me. I am like you sitting in your dorm room after move-in day. It feels good, but let's see how it goes when the snow comes, when the tests come, when it first starts to show the salt and dirt, when the economics lecture goes way over our head, when the first long-distance trip comes, when the learning management system goes down.

At least, I won't be asked to donate money when I finish with this car.