Why buying a mattress is like choosing a college

By: and

Feb 13, 2020

On the face of it, comparing buying a mattress to choosing a college might feel apocryphal. Insulting even.

College encompasses a series of experiences—from the classroom to extracurricular activities and social opportunities—that, in the best of scenarios, are transformative.

A mattress is, well, a mattress. A bunch of foam and coils on which you sleep.

But a mattress can be incredibly valuable—and, like institutions of higher education, increasingly complex. It impacts one of the things that is most important in someone’s life—a person’s sleep, the quality and quantity of which is one of the top determinants of health and wellness.

But beyond the normative question, choosing a mattress has some similarities to choosing a college. Comparing and contrasting the two helps us learn.

Consumers don’t know what they don’t know

Buying a mattress and choosing a college are both purchase decisions that we don’t make all that often. That means we lack familiarity around each, so we don’t know what we don’t know. Although the act of choosing each can be exciting, it can also be intimidating.

Try wandering into a traditional mattress store and see if you feel overwhelmed by the rows of beds in an expansive showroom. Chances are high that, like most individuals, you will have little insight around how to make a sound choice. What’s more, you’ll then spend much of your visit lying down on mattresses for 30 seconds to see which feels right in conditions vastly different from how you will actually use the mattress. The information you glean from lying down could be of little use and, worst case, highly misleading because ultimately anything is likely to feel better than your old mattress.

That’s not too dissimilar from a college visit. Try wandering around a college campus. You’re likely to be overcome by its beauty, but overwhelmed with whom to talk to and the years of traditions and knowledge creation and transfer that surround it. Chances are good that you will have little knowledge about how to make a sound choice. And as with shopping for a mattress, the circumstances under which you visit will likely be very dissimilar from how you’d actually experience college itself. A tour with an enthusiastic and charismatic tour guide is designed to make anyone feel that that college is for them—especially if the weather is nice and the campus is sparkling.

Not only are both shopping experiences opaque, but prototyping what both purchases would actually be like to consume on a daily basis is also difficult and makes it hard to get an accurate read.

Confusing language

To add to that opacity, mattress manufacturers and showrooms as well as colleges tend to use a variety of terms that mean a lot to them on the inside, but can often be confusing and confounding to those on the outside.

In mattress speak, the suppliers talk of coils, foam, springs, temperatures, encasings, latex, memory, and more. There are pillow tops and plush. And all sorts of combinations from there.

In college speak, there are things like credit hours, regional and national accreditation, and liberal arts colleges—which, as Kaplan’s Brandon Busteed has noted, many mistakenly believe means that a college is politically liberal. In the Privileged Poor, Harvard Professor Anthony Jack argued that language like “office hours” is confusing to low-income students from disadvantaged public school backgrounds.

More pointedly, as uAspire and the New America Foundation have shown, college financial aid award letters are not just confusing, but they are downright misleading with inconsistent and inaccurate terminology and undefined aid types. As JD Vance wrote in “Hillbilly Elegy,” the talk of deciphering a college’s “talk of Pell Grants, subsidized loans, unsubsidized loans, scholarships, and something called ‘work-study” was excruciating.

When you should buy

Finally, adults may struggle to know when they need a new mattress or when they need college—so they compensate.

A new mattress competes routinely with Zzzquil and coffee for people struggling to sleep. When people need a new mattress and their sleep suffers, you see them taking Zzzquil to get them a few extra hours of shuteye at night while coffee helps them get through the day (pro tip: if you consume a lot of these, you probably need a new mattress). Many people don’t know they need a new mattress until they sleep in a hotel and realize what they’ve been missing. It’s no coincidence that the number of hotels selling mattresses has dramatically increased in the last several years.

In education, YouTube and Wikipedia are routine competitors for adults who are struggling to learn more. It often doesn’t occur to them that more formal education might be just what the doctor ordered.

What should colleges do about it?

The good news is that because the bar is relatively low, there are many opportunities to improve. Because the experience of buying a mattress is so bad, for example, it made it relatively easy for Casper to emerge online. By improving on a lousy buying experience, Casper became a publicly-traded company—not by having a better mattress, but simply by making it easier to buy.

In a time of declining enrollments and stressed business models for colleges, there may be similar opportunities. Here are three tips.

First, figure out ways to make the choosing process less daunting. Help students prototype what attending the school will actually be like and see, in transparent terms, how it does or doesn’t align with the progress they are trying to make in their lives.

Second, using language that students understand rather than the language of colleges will go a long way in demystifying what a college offers.

Finally, schools should focus more on creating value, less on discounting to lure students. That means being clear about the progress that a student wants to make when they enroll and structuring accordingly to help them make that progress. Students will willingly give up something—their money, time or effort—if it helps them accomplish a priority in their lives, and they will consciously seek out that offering if it clearly aligns with the progress they are seeking.

Although colleges have long specialized in offering extra twin-long beds alongside an educational experience, it doesn’t mean they need to emulate other parts of the mattress-buying experience.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.

Bob is president of The ReWired Group and serves as an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute. He is one of the principal architects of the Jobs to Be Done framework.