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Unlike other major purchases in life, families know little about what they will actually pay for a college education when they begin the search.

Without clarity on the eventual price, families think more about the academic and social fit of campuses rather than the financial fit. They believe, often incorrectly, that they can figure out a way to pay the cost through a combination of scholarships, loans, and savings. After all, they’ve heard that every school offers a discount to entice you to enroll (hint: they don’t).

As a result, emotions steer choices, and many wind up disappointed when the hoped-for financial aid doesn’t materialize.

During the year I spent inside the admissions process, what I came to see, and prospective students and their families should too, is that colleges are either “buyers” or “sellers” of spots in the freshman class.

Sellers are the “haves” of admissions. They have something to sell that consumers want, typically a brand name that signals prestige in the job market and social circles. They are overwhelmed with applications, many from top students. Their admissions officers see their role as gatekeepers. You’ve heard of these places: Stanford University, Amherst College, Yale University, among others.

The buyers are the “have-nots” in terms of admissions—although they might provide an excellent undergraduate education. They may lack national reputations or have much smaller endowments. Rather than select a class, their admissions officers must work hard to recruit students to fill classroom seats and beds in dorm rooms, so they offer coupons on tuition called “merit scholarships” no matter your family’s income.

You’ve heard of some quality schools—Clemson and Syracuse universities, for instance— but perhaps not others, such as Elon University in North Carolina and Rollins College in Florida.

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