Amazon vs. Higher Education

What if shopping for books was as difficult as shopping for a college education is today?

Amazon has revolutionized how we buy things. Within minutes I can identify the right product to fill my need, click a single button, and have it at my door within 24 hours.

Beyond the ease of the transaction itself, Amazon has created a ranking and review system that makes it easy to find the right product the first time, further saving time and money. 

Buying Books in Bizarro World

Imagine that buying a book on Amazon was like buying a four-year education in America. Let’s say you have a passion for Interior Design and wanted to learn how to launch a successful career in that field. 

Instead of a 2-3 step process that can be completed in minutes, you would have to jump through the following hoops to make a successful purchase.

Browsing Products

Are the oldest books always the best?

Are the oldest books always the best?

Your search would start by browsing a ranking of the “Best Traditional Books”. This list, dominated by the earliest books ever written, would showcase the books that have been around the longest and thus have had more time to accrue both more earnings to their authors and the acclaim of more past readers.

Extra points would be given to those authors that decided to charge an extreme amount for their books while only allowing a select group of readers to purchase them.

This select group of readers would largely be made up of those whose parents had already read one of the books from the list.

Narrowing Your Search

Upon looking at this initial list of books that have nothing to do with Interior Design, you would next begin to narrow your search. Your primary factors for doing this would include:

  • The suggested retail price of the book (even though most books have discounts you may or may not know about).
  • Whether you are likely to be allowed to read the book (based on how well you perform on standardized tests that have little to do with your ability to succeed in your chosen field).
  • Whether or not the single bookstore the book is sold in is anywhere near you.
  • The size (# of pages) of the book and its setting (hardcover, paperback, kindle, etc.).
  • Several other miscellaneous factors such as the percentage of readers that complete the book, the percentage of men vs. women that read it, and whether or not the book was subsidized by your tax dollars.

You will likely be unable to tell if the book is about Interior Design. However...

If you are lucky, you will be able to narrow your list to those books that have a chapter about “Visual and Performing Arts” (the high level subject under which Interior Design falls). 

If you are really lucky, you might be able to narrow the list further to see those that have a chapter on “Design and Applied Arts” (the sub-category within that under which Interior Design has been placed). 

You unfortunately will not be able to tell if the entire book is about that sub-category or it is just part of a single chapter. You will also not be able to tell if that chapter is about Interior Design or the many other subjects within that broad category.

Building Your Wish List

With this list of “best fit” books for you, you would begin clicking on each to learn more. For each book you would be able to see a page full of facts about the book such as the percentage of readers that wanted to read it that were allowed to. The more people that wanted to read the book but couldn’t, the more the book would interest you.

Unclear on what many of the facts ultimately mean or how to make actionable sense of them, your interest would largely be driven by emotional considerations.

Saving books to your wish list would be based primarily on how high they showed in the initial rankings list, how many times you or your parents had heard of the book, and how pretty you thought the cover of the book was.

Reader Reviews

Unsure about whether or not each book is the right one for you, you might decide to dig deeper. Most people want to check out ratings and reviews from people who have read the book, but you wouldn't be able to do this on Amazon itself...

It's important to find out if the author scored lots of chili peppers...

It's important to find out if the author scored lots of chili peppers...

Instead you would have to go to several other sites offering such reviews. Unfortunately the reviews wouldn’t be about the quality of the book or whether or not it helped the reader learn more about how to become a successful Interior Designer (or anything at all for that matter).

The reviews would be focused on how easy the book was to read, how “hot” the author was or how good the food was that the reader was eating while reading the book.


Seeking Professional Help

At this point you may have decided your only option for getting to the bottom of which book is best is to hire a professional book advisor, or to make use of a public advisor through your local high school.

Unfortunately in any of the above cases, given the thousands of books available, your advisor would likely only have direct experience with a small handful of them, most of which would be sold at bookstores locally.  

To make matters worse, the tools your advisor likely has at their disposal to navigate the large number of schools out there are likely no different than the ones you already have access to yourself. They might be able to tell you which what past readers from your town were able to purchase and reach which books, but that doesn't really tell you if you want to buy the same book. 

Visiting the Books

What was that saying again: "Don't judge a book by it's cover?"

What was that saying again: "Don't judge a book by it's cover?"

If you and your parents had the money and time to do so, you might decide to visit some of the books you were considering.

This would give you a chance to see the covers of the books first hand rather than simply seeing pictures of them on the Internet. You could also talk to a salesperson that could help show you the most appealing parts of the cover.

You might even get a chance to sleep in the bookstore overnight, sampling some of the food in it’s food court and possibly hear one of the authors read a few paragraphs from their book to you. 

Qualifying to Read the Books

If you were lucky, your family could send you to a special class to help you better pass the standardized test that would allow you to read books. If you were less wealthy, you might have to study for the test on your own. 

Does the test have anything to do with the subject matter of the book or what you want to do in your career? Not really. Some people believe the test proves you are better able to read, some don't.

Still, most book authors insist that you take the test, and some book authors will only allow you to read their book if you score highly. It is in their interests to limit access to the book so they can charge more for it, or brag about how highly their readers score on tests. 

Applying to Read

Six or more months later, you would have finally narrowed your list of books to your top 5 - 10 choices.  At this point, you would spend many hours for each school completing applications requesting the opportunity to purchase the book. These applications would be far more extensive than applying for a home mortgage. They would include essays, recommendations and verification of your ability to read and remember facts.

Acceptance Letters

Three to four months later, you would begin to hear back from the books you applied to purchase. This is also the time at which the book sellers would tell you how much your book will cost.

Your price could range from free to full price, and it is difficult to know in advance.  This often means that many of the books you were granted permission to buy are more than you can afford.


Once you have chosen the book you will buy (you can only buy one at a time for some reason), you will await delivery. For this, you will be offered their Amazon “Subprime” program. This allows you to accept delivery of the book three months after you accept your offer to buy it, in a single location, possibly hundreds, if not thousands of miles away from your home, where you will have to relocate to for the next four years to read the book.

An Archaic Buying Experience

One might argue that buying a four year education is more complex than buying a book and thus is not a fair comparison. While this may be a fair point, it is hard not to argue that the current college shopping experience borders on the absurd. Comparing it to how we buy things on Amazon provides a stark contrast and highlights several areas that could easily see improvement.

The current higher education marketplace is one of complexity, exclusion, high expense and lack of transparency.

This needs to change if our country is to continue to be the world leader in higher education. More importantly though, this change is mandatory if we are to educate our next generation with the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed in it.  

Do you agree? Join us in our attempt to create an open higher education marketplace.


Photo of books by Austin Kirk via Flickr under CC BY 2.0 

Chili Pepper clipart by Stephen Bain via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0