You get what you pay for?

Good article this week about the cost of private Higher Education that basically sums up all that's wrong with America and just how gullible people are.  Here's the lede:

COLLEGEVILLE, Pa. ? John Strassburger, the president of Ursinus
College, a small liberal arts institution here in the eastern
Pennsylvania countryside, vividly remembers the day that the chairman
of the board of trustees told him the college was losing applicants
because of its tuition.

It was too low.

So early in 2000 the board voted to raise
tuition and fees 17.6 percent, to $23,460 (and to include a laptop for
every incoming student to help soften the blow). Then it waited to see
what would happen.

Ursinus received nearly 200 more applications
than the year before. Within four years the size of the freshman class
had risen 35 percent, to 454 students. Applicants had apparently
concluded that if the college cost more, it must be better.

Basically, people just foolishly assume that more expensive must equal better, even when there's no empirical reality to back up that assumption.  Sure, the more expensive tickets at a football game put you down low at the 50 yard line and the cheapest put you in the end-zone nosebleed seats, but quite often in life, differences in price have little relation to differences in quality.  Anybody who thinks that the education at Ursinus approaches that at Harvard because their tuition charges are now almost identical, deserves to get ripped off (and surely is not smart enough to get into Harvard). 

Reading this reminded me of one of my all-time favorite books, Influence by Robert Cialdini.  There's a chapter which deals extensively with how people are hopelessly biased thinkers when it comes to price and quite often simply fail to behave rationally.  The book is filled with useful psychological principles that I still think about almost every day (and I have not read it since my undergraduate days– at least 12 years ago).  It is also incredibly readable.  Looking for something good to read over the holidays, you could do a lot worse.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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