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Alma Mater Pride: Inside the Pricy World of Collegiate Merchandise

By Claire Swadling

If you pepper any college student with questions about the composition of their wardrobe, you are bound to wind up with a list of items emblazoned with their future alma mater. From quarter zips and sweatpants to bikini tops and even underwear, virtually any article of clothing can be branded by an institution of higher education. And it has. Indeed, the collegiate-licensed apparel industry is continually on the rise. With roughly 20 million students entering college each fall, revenue exceeds $4.6 billion dollars—and with it, the rise (and fall) of retail companies trying to cash in on the spirit wear craze. One would hypothesize that the increasing market saturation would lead to sufficient price competition to drive down consumer costs. Unfortunately, the unaffordability of college apparel remains a key barrier to consumer needs.

For example, take Hype and Vice, a Y Combinator backed start-up headed by two recent grads, Cecilia Gonzalez and Kimberly Robles. The Forbes 30 Under 30 pair attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and the University of Southern California, respectively, before launching their venture. Hype and Vice prides itself on the creation of trendy clothes “to embody the spirit, passion, and lifestyle of your college years while fostering community and fandom!” However, it seems that such a “community” is priced relatively steeply–snagging a “Harvard Homerun” crop top will put you back at least $35, a cardigan almost $60. Meanwhile, their equivalents at Forever 21 (sans the premium priced logo) are only $5 and $17, respectively. Of course, this discrepancy is in part due to the known unethical production practices perpetuated by Forever 21. But on the other hand, it’s impossible to assume Hype and Vice aren’t also taking advantage of the same profit maximizing factors of production. College apparel is expensive.

And it’s not just Hype and Vice–take the Harvard Coop, or any other company approved by the Collegiate Licensing Company, the official marketing firm that certifies these apparel brands. Not only is it responsible for driving t-shirt and shot glass prices up, but the certification allows some of the revenue to be funneled back to universities.With tuition already sky-high, many students are frustrated with notoriously expensive merchandise. And why shouldn’t they be? Broke college students don’t need their purchasing power to be further diminished by the profit margins of global retail companies.

In theory, more firms like Hype and Vice entering the market should be a good thing for consumers. The monopolistic competition exhibited by these companies should lower prices as more firms enter the market, but the opposite seems to be occurring. Whether preppy or trendy, all university-stamped apparel doesn’t come cheap. Even though a Collegiate Licensing Company approved brand may sell essentially the same clothing as Macy’s or Old Navy, the certification speaks for itself. This intangible differentiation has propelled sales and remains the gold standard for collegiate merchandise–and is the reason why certified apparel is so expensive. With the Company and universities only granting the exclusive rights to select firms, a bottleneck is created that gives those proud college students looking for “merch” a headache. In order to make apparel more affordable for low-income students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the Collegiate Licensing Company, universities, and collegiate apparel firms alike need to reevaluate their profit margins.

It’s no question that the demand for sweater vests and winter scarves adorned with a university’s emblem will not diminish in the coming years. Nonetheless, what does stand to change is how much universities and the apparel industry are willing to prioritize profits over consumer satisfaction. But only time will tell how forward-thinking they really are.


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