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, 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.

The 2024 Buyers and Sellers List provides essential data on more than 500 colleges and universities, and a very rough sort of the chances for receiving merit aid.

Please look at the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) because in my experience they will answer the questions you’re likely to have.

Note: The examples in the video are based on data that was available in 2020. The list itself is based on data universities submitted in 2021 and 2022.

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.

The list is not developed using a precise mathematical formula nor should you think of it as a binary system. Rather it’s best to consider this a rough sort of colleges when it comes to how they deploy financial aid, either as a discount (buyers) or for financial need (sellers). Use this list to educate yourself about all the factors. To build your own specific list, use the data published by colleges you’re interested in.

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 get financial aid because their family finances didn’t qualify them 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 buyers, meaning they admit a large percent of applicants, their yield rate is lower, and a higher percentage of the aid they offer is merit aid or non-need based aid.

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 as 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. 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 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 (they are less selective) but a seller on the financial aid side (they are stingy). So that’s why we left the buyer/seller designation on the spreadsheet blank for public colleges, but provided you with much data to assist so you can ask the right questions of the financial aid office.

What if I don’t want to fill out the form — how can I use data to determine if a 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 70% or more. When sellers make an offer of admission, nearly 45% of students accept, compared to 25% for buyers (you can find that in the yield rate data). Finally, sellers give out less than 10% (and often less than 7%) of their aid without regard to financial need. Meanwhile, at buyers as much as 33% of the institution’s aid budget might be given out as merit-based discounts. But remember, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to buyers and sellers.

A data source you can use is the “common data set” each college is required to provide. It’s often deep within an institutional research page. Do internet searches on “[college name] common data set” for each school you’re interested in.

Why are some well-known colleges not on the list? Why isn’t out-of-state tuition listed?

The list is compiled using data from the College Board (2021) and the U.S. Department of Education (IPEDS, 2021-22). 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.

What do all the columns mean on the spreadsheet? And why does net price by income stop at $110,000?

If you have any questions about terms in the columns or why data is displayed the way it is, please consult the Glossary of Terms.


These definitions are drawn from the U.S. Department of Education IPEDS Glossary. (IPEDS stands for Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System)

Aid given by the college for which a student need not demonstrate financial need to qualify, but excluding athletic aid and tuition waivers, divided by the total institutional aid given that year.

Applicants who were accepted and then enrolled as degree-seeking, first-time, first-year students.

Total first-time, first-year applicants who were admitted divided by total number of applications.

Total number of applications. Note: Starting in 2023-24, colleges can only count applications if they include enough information to make an admission decision.

Total dollar amount of loans, grants, scholarships, and jobs from institutional, state, federal, or other sources for which a student must demonstrate financial need to qualify.

Total dollar amount of scholarships, grants, and other aid from institutional sources awarded solely on the basis of academic achievement, merit, or any other non-need-based reason.

Net price is calculated by adding the advertised price for tuition, fees, books, supplies, and the average living costs at the school (on-campus, off-campus not with family, and off-campus with family) and subtracting the average grant and/or scholarship aid (e.g., Pell grants, school-based grants, merit scholarships). Net price is calculated as the average over all full-time, first-time students who receive federal financial aid and may not reflect a specific student’s annual costs. For public schools, this is the average cost for in-state students. Negative cost values indicate that the average grant/scholarship aid exceeded the cost of attendance.

Based on adjusted gross income. Income quintiles were developed nearly 20 years ago but never adjusted for inflation, which is why the top group is $110,000+.

The percentage of full-time, first-time bachelor’s degree-seeking undergraduates from the previous fall who are again enrolled in the current fall.

Percentage of students completing their program within the normal period of time.

Number of students completing their program within a time period equal to one and a half times (150%) the normal period of time.

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