Why Choosing a College is NOT like Choosing a Mattress

Karen Gross
Feb 16, 2020 · 6 min read

A recent article from the Christensen Institute stated overtly that choosing a college is like choosing a mattress. In short, the argument proffered in that both choices involve lack of information symmetry, are difficult to understand and present vocabulary that is impenetrable to the layperson. And, there are so many choices, we can’t actually choose well, a point made about the risks of abundant choice generally.

Here’s a link to the just described article: https://www.christenseninstitute.org/blog/why-buying-a-mattress-is-like-choosing-a-college/?utm_source=Ed%20Digest&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2%2F14%2F20

Let me state at the get-go that this article makes my blood boil, unless it was meant in jest — which appears not to be the case. So, I wanted to write the reverse article: why choosing colleges is not like choosing a mattress except at the most superficial level, rendering the similarities meaningless and actually absurd.

The following five reasons (I have many more) suggest why selecting a mattress and purchasing it is NOT like selecting a college:

  1. Start with this realization: once you choose a mattress, even if the choice is difficult, you are stuck with the mattress after a certain period of time. Yes, you can return a mattress for a period of time allowed by the seller or manufacturer but most such opportunities expire after a while. The converse is true for choosing a college; if you make a choice that does not work for you, you can transfer and many students do in this day and age. And, you can pick a college the next time that is smaller or larger or closer or farther from home. You can choose a place that is mostly or partially on line or you can pick a place that is a true brick and mortar experience.
  2. There is a vast difference between who is choosing mattresses and colleges. Adults select mattresses — for themselves and their children. For the most part, even teenagers don’t choose their mattress. Part of the complexity of college choice is that there is no “one” person making the choice. In some instances, parents have profound involvement. At other times, students are left to their own devices or to their advisors in high school. This is true for many first gen students. Surely this is true for non-trads (who are now the trads) who have stopped out or dropped out. Many students in high school and in other contexts (the military and adult learners) make choices that their friends made. Hardly the case with most mattress choices. And, for those that can afford them, there are paid college selection advisors — and some are truly high paid. These individuals develop lists of appropriate schools and then guide the application and the selection process. Now, does that happen with mattresses? Surely we don’t have or even want someone else selecting the mattress on which we sleep. And, except perhaps some orthopedists and chiropractors, I don’t think our medical professionals help us select a mattress.
  3. Mattress choices are hidden. We cover mattresses with sheets and duvets and other coverings. So, the mattress we buy is not seen by those who visit our home or with whom we converse. Most folks don’t share with their friends or co-workers which mattress they sleep upon. Sure, some people do if they are enthralled by their mattress but seriously, do you know what kind of mattress your next door neighbor, close friends and business/work associates purchased and used. Now, college choice is totally different. The choices for most students (not all to be sure) are known. They may be known within the high school or the workplace. It is information shared with friends. It appears on a resume. And, depending on the choice, it is a sign of pride or disappointment. When a person says, “I am going to Yale,” people notice that choice. I sleep on a Serta doesn’t do that. When a person says “I am going to Westchester Community College,” there may be a sense of disappointment: why is the person not going to a four-year college away from home.” Or pride if one is the first in one’s family to pursue post-secondary education. The point is that college choice is a “public” decision whereas a mattress is not.
  4. A mattress may be a long term choice; other people change mattresses when they move or age. Some people upgrade their mattress. This is not so with college choice. Once you have a degree (assuming you get one), you can’t trade in that degree for a degree from a different institution. Yes, you can try to change trajectories through graduate education but a college degree stays with you; you are an alum, like it or not. And, for some, the choice is one of profound and lifelong pride. Consider the alums of Princeton who return in record numbers for reunions. Other alums, like Sweet Briar, supported their college when it was about to close. We aren’t attached like that with our mattress; well, most of us aren’t.
  5. We don’t donate to mattress companies or the sellers of mattresses. If they go out of business or thrive, we don’t have much input. We don’t usually invest in them as equity holders. We don’t wear their sweatshirts and attend their reunions or sporting events. (OK, I do have Serta sheep — the numbered ones — and they are on my non-Serta mattress. I adore the sheep and their different numbers and the different sizes of these sheep but I don’t often share them so to speak.) Now, one’s relationship going forward with one’s college (even in the selection process) is different. Look at the college swag that is offered to applicants or available for purchase or both. Look at the banners on school walls and doors. Gee, we don’t have mattress ads hanging. And, once accepted, a student engages with his/her college in significant ways: making connections; networking with alums (in some instances); donating time to causes sponsored by the college. And, following graduation, the engagement can range from nothing to everything. Some folks stay in the neighborhood where they attended college. Think about Burlington VT where UVM is located. Now, do we relocate or work where our mattress store is or our mattress manufacturer or even our mattress itself — that mattress moves with us rather than dictating where we live.

OK, those are just five reasons. And it does a terrible disservice to college choice to compare it to mattress purchases. Sure, at the superficial level, there are similarities. Is selecting a college also like selecting a coffee maker? Please. For me at least, the comparison suggested harkens back to a time when college choice was made by/for 18 year olds. At a minimum, that is not what college choice is all about today. And, choice confusion — for mattresses and colleges — does not mean the choices are similar. All that means is that when we have abundant choice and information asymmetries, we struggle. But, the struggles camouflage vast choice differences and how the choices are made and by whom and how often and why and when.

In short: Colleges are not mattresses or shoes or houses, although they share characteristics of some of these items.

College choice (or its absence or failure) is a serious topic and one well worth discussing. How to help students at all ages and stages find the right fit matters. And we need to find ways to improve collegiate admissions. But, let’s not suggest — even for a nanosecond — that buying a mattress is like choosing a college. We are smarter than that …. even if we made bad mattress or college choices. I was disappointed by the Institute. I expected better.

Medium’s largest publication dedicated to education reform | Listen to our podcast at aoapodcast.com

Age of Awareness
Karen Gross

Written by

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Tune in at aoapodcast.com | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors