Some families must choose between buying a car and saving money for college. Not so for customers of Fullerton Automotive in Somerville, N.J.
This year, Fullerton began offering customers who buy or lease a new or used vehicle a free one-year membership in a program called CollegeSave. The program enables participants to earn up to one year's worth of college tuition discounts at more than 370 participating colleges and universities in 45 states.
The goal of the program is twofold: enhanced customer relations and referrals for the dealership, and a head start for customers seeking to put away money for college tuition, says Tom DiFiore, president of the dealership, which sells Ford, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram, Alfa Romeo and Fiat vehicles.
"We were looking for ways to engage and help our community, aside from buying an ad in the program for a local high school football game," DiFiore said. "Then CollegeSave came in to talk to us. It really resonated with us because it's great for our dealership and great for our customers. It was a no-brainer once we realized the added value it provides for our customers."
Here's how it works.
When customers buy a vehicle, they're offered a membership in the program. Once signed up, they can earn 250 points every month by completing various tasks, such as watching a short video about a college, answering a brief questionnaire or reading an article about government-regulated 529 college savings accounts. Each point is worth a dollar in college tuition discounts and can be combined with other financial aid offered by the participating schools.
Customers get 1,000 points just for joining the program and can earn up to $4,000 a year in tuition discounts per membership. Fullerton pays the CollegeSave membership fee, which DiFiore said he's not allowed to disclose. Customers can designate a child as the recipient of the tuition discounts, as well as a grandchild, niece, nephew, stepchild or godchild — any age from a newborn to a junior in high school, DiFiore said.
"But the real beauty of the program is that every time a customer refers someone to us who buys a car, they get another membership," he said. So if a customer refers 12 people to the dealership and they all buy a car, for example, that would result in another $12,000 worth of tuition discounts, and potentially up to $48,000 more.
Customers cannot earn more than $52,000 in tuition discounts, which get applied to tuition bills evenly over the first four years spent in college. If a customer earns $40,000 in discounts, for instance, but four years' worth of tuition is $30,000, the remaining $10,000 can be awarded to a different child or relative, DiFiore said.
In addition, customers also receive a customized college savings road map to help them reach their savings goals; a directory of free homework helplines that provide online or phone support for students; access to a panel of experts who can handle questions about topics such as saving for college and selecting the right school to attend; and a monthly newsletter with financial tips for saving money.
CollegeSave says it awarded tuition discounts totaling more than $74.6 million in 2016. The Washington, D.C., organization has partnered with the nonprofit Americans for Affordable College Costs. Roughly 80 percent of the nonprofit, private colleges and universities that participate in CollegeSave's program are listed in U.S. News & World Report's ranking of America's best colleges. The general public cannot sign up for CollegeSave; members can join only through participating businesses.
So far, the dealership, which sells about 4,000 new and roughly 1,500 used vehicles a year, has registered more than 1,100 memberships in CollegeSave. About 180 of those memberships were given to Fullerton employees, DiFiore said.
"The program hasn't had a huge impact yet on our bottom line," he noted. "But it has created quite a buzz among our employees. We expect to see the benefits increase in the coming months as referrals spread and the word gets out about the program.
"Customer response has been very positive," he said. "To be honest, some people think it's too good to be true. We have to explain to them that it's not a gimmick."
DiFiore said the dealership is concerned about how the rising cost of a college education impacts customers, especially when their children have to take out student loans. According to the College Board, tuition at private four-year institutions rose 13 percent from the 2011-12 school year to the 2016-17 school year, after adjusting for inflation.
Dean Tuccillo, general manager at Fullerton Automotive, said word-of-mouth has begun. "We're seeing more people coming in and telling us that a friend of theirs bought a car here and signed on for a tuition-savings program," he said. "It's a good tool for closing a sale. We're doing something that the guy down the street isn't doing."