A new way to think about your college list:
the Buyers and Sellers

The search for the right fit in a college should result in one that measures up in three ways: academic, social, and financial. But too often, when students and their families start looking for schools their quest is guided by academic and social needs as well as geography.

While cost is a concern, families have only a hazy idea of what their tuition bill might look like. So they don’t think about the price of college until it’s too late.

Questions about the Buyers and Sellers? Check out the video to the right and the FAQs below.


FAQs about the Buyers and Sellers List

What are the buyers and sellers?

It’s a concept I developed while researching and writing Who Gets In and Why.

The sellers are the “haves” of admissions. They are overwhelmed with applications, many from top students. They don’t need to buy students with tuition discounts to fill their classrooms. Most sellers offer financial assistance only to students who really need it or are truly exceptional.

The buyers are the “have-nots” in terms of admissions—although they might provide a superior undergraduate education. Rather than “select” a class, their admissions officers must work hard to recruit students and they must discount tuition through merit aid to fill classroom seats and beds in dorm rooms.

It’s best not to think of this as a scientific formula or a binary system. Rather use it as a guide in your search because most schools fall somewhere on the spectrum of buyers and sellers.


Why did you make this list? Why is it important?

Too many of the students I followed for the book applied to great schools academically and they got in. But then they didn’t qualify for financial aid because they missed the cutoff for need-based aid. By then it was too late to apply elsewhere. They had too many sellers on their list of schools and not enough buyers.


OK, it’s not a formula, but how did you determine the buyers and sellers?

I looked at three numbers:

  1. Percentage of applicants admitted
  2. Yield rate (the percentage admitted who chose to enroll)
  3. Percentage of institutional aid that is non-need based

The lower the admit rate, the higher the yield, and the larger the percentage of aid based on need, the more likely the school is a seller. Sellers make up a fairly small number of four-year colleges and universities, less than 10 percent. The vast majority of schools are somewhere on the spectrum of buyers.

So the sellers are good schools and the buyers aren’t?

Not at all. None of this buyer-seller division is a reflection of the actual educational quality of the school. You can get a great education at a buyer. Most schools are buyers. I went to one myself. Savvy students willing to look beyond the brand-name sellers can find great schools that are buyers.

Are there buyers and sellers among public colleges and universities, too?

Yes, but with lots of caveats. How public colleges and universities distribute financial aid differs greatly by state and for in-state and out-of-state students. For example, Florida and Georgia both operate large merit-based scholarships paid for by the state lottery to prevent a brain drain and recruit their residents to in-state schools. Meanwhile, the University of Alabama uses merit aid to recruit out-of-state students. So whether a public college is a buyer or seller sometimes differs depending on whether you’re an in-state or out-of-state student or other public policies that are sometimes at odds with the selectivity of an institution. In some cases, an institution might look like a buyer on the admissions front but a seller on the financial aid side.


Once I fill out the form, how do I use the visualization?

There are two parts to the visualization:

  • The top dashboard allows you to identify a group of schools you’re interested in either by selecting from several categories (such as selective privates or publics) in the left drop down or by individual institutions in the right hand drop down.
  • The bottom dashboard allows you to look up individual campuses for additional data about them.
I want to give a shout out to Andrew Palumbo, an enrollment leader and host of the Inside Admission podcast, for his assistance in compiling and designing the visualization.


What if I don’t want to fill out the form—how can I glean myself if school is a buyer or seller?

Here’s a rule of thumb: On average, sellers admit less than 20% of applicants, while colleges as a whole admit two-thirds. When sellers make an offer, nearly 45% of students accept, compared with a quarter for buyers. And only 7% of the financial aid sellers give out to students is a merit-based discount, compared with nearly one-third of aid at buyers. But there are no hard and fast rules.


Anything else I need to know?

The list is compiled using data from the College Board (2019) and the U.S. Department of Education (IPEDS, 2019-20). The list is only as good as the data used to build it. It has two big limitations. Because the College Board doesn’t collect data on institutional aid from every college, some institutions are missing from the list. Also, the IPEDS database doesn’t track net prices at public universities for out-of-state students. 

Finally, you’ll see some institutions classified as “mild buyer” or “extreme buyer.” These are subjective labels on my part. A mild buyer means it gives out more merit aid than many of its competitors; an extreme buyer is typically an outlier among its competitors. 

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