Don't Buy Your College Kid a Laptop at the Campus Store

group of students working on...
College today is horrendously expensive. Beyond tuition bills that look like significant percentages of the national debt, and room-and-board costs that make you wonder if the school is housing your child in the Ritz-Carlton, pricey textbooks and laptops are a near universal requirement.

The school store will be happy to sell these laptops. But data collected by suggest you probably want to resist: You could be paying far more than the usual retail price for your hardware -- upwards of 35 percent more.

DealNews looked at the computer prices in the school stores of U.S. News & World Report's five top-ranking public universities and one of the top private universities. (Private universities are often finicky about letting non-students into their online stores, so there were fewer options.) The site then compared the most and least expensive laptops as well as the cheapest tablet to similar configurations in back-to-school deals available from retailers.

Better Deals at Walmart, Target

On the average, campus prices were 35 percent higher than those offered by retail stores. Most of the equipment at the schools also seemed to be sold as is, without additional software or tech support. When DailyFinance asked, a DealNews representative confirmed that the site took into account all the installed software when comparing prices. For example, the University of Virginia sold a first-generation iPad with 16GB of RAM for $299. That was $100 more than Walmart (WMT) and Target (TGT) charged in their summer deals.

Some schools had reasonably priced equipment. But 68 percent of the time, families would have been better off buying the gear off-campus. Even when there are educational discounts, like with Apple (AAPL) equipment, major stores were sometimes less expensive by up to $50.

That said, there are a few situations when the lower price you could get from an off-campus retailer might not be such a smart deal.
  • Specialized software. Some software, like in areas of engineering, may be free. Others could require specific commercial packages. For example, if your kid is studying photography, design or art, Adobe (ADBE) software could be required. Check to see if you can get the same software deal as the school does. If not, you might find that the lower software prices more than make up the cost difference of the hardware.
  • Maintenance. Laptops can take a beating. Does the school include a full maintenance plan? You don't want your student stuck with an expensive brick and no option for fixing it. Plus, you might also need to install various applications and utilities. The time and irritation alone, particularly when things are pressed as you send the scholar on his or her way, might be worth the extra money. If you worry that you'll buy the wrong thing, purchases at the school store can reduce your stress.
  • Financing. The school might provide financing that is significantly cheaper than what you might have available to you via a credit card.
But chances are good that you won't have to give up anything to keep some extra green in the wallet. And you know the kid will be calling soon enough asking if you can spare any cash.

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