Sunday, February 24, 2008

College on $50 a Day: It's a Great Way to Fly

In "The Skies Are Alive With Fees", the New York Times' Joe Sharkey writes about Irish airline Ryanair's cutthroat pricing system. Boasting fares as low as $30 round trip on some European routes, Ryanair is also "the world champion among airlines in generating extra cash by charging customers fees for services and products that most airlines include in the ticket price: checked bags, beverages and — for a time before the idea was dropped amid public outcry — even using a wheelchair." What is called in business-speak "differential pricing," I believe, is not unknown to American travelers. Recently United offered me the opportunity to pay $25 extra for more leg room; there are special travel categories where travelers who pay more are checked in faster; and instead of the cute meals in little plastic dishes we used to get before 9/11, as Sharkey points out, flight attendants sell snack boxes that are full of all kinds of things only David Sedaris would eat.

Sounds undemocratic, doesn't it?

But let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. This is a concept worth thinking about at the corporate university. Given rising tuition, faculty salaries that are barely keeping pace with inflation, and the inevitable accusations that some faculty work harder than others -- how about differential pricing for college students? Is it not true that some students do not ever feel the need to go to office hours? Is it not true that some faculty advise many students while others advise none? Is it not true that some faculty come in one day a week and others are on campus three to five days a week? Differential pricing could resolve all of these issues by creating a base price for college, and then giving undergraduates the opportunity to pay more for the frills. Those fees could then go directly to the faculty members providing the various services, thus permitting those faculty doing the most work to get paid for it.

The benefit to the budget-conscious student would be clear, since we know that many students' college experience is more about their friends and co-curricular experiences than any contact with faculty. How many generations of budding scholars have said romantically, "I learned so much more from conversations in the dining hall than I ever did in class?" Well, let's use this insight, and the Ryanair business model, to produce the leaner, meaner university. At Differentially Priced U. faculty attention would be a commodity, separated out from meals, dormitory, student fees, and whatnot, that students would pay for as needed. Not going to graduate school? Why pay for letters of recommendation you won't be using? Never go to office hours? Why should your tuition go to pay faculty to sit in their offices so other students can get help? Don't really give a damn about the comments on your papers? Well, why pay for them? Have the paper read quickly and processed for a grade, at the low-low price already included in your tuition.

You can see what I mean: this is a brilliant idea. And the reason this is a perfect system for students is that faculty who never attend their own office hours, don't put comments on papers anyway, and can't be trusted to write a letter of recommendation because they don't know your name -- won't get paid for it. Those who do know your name and can write for you will get paid. This also makes it the perfect system for popular faculty besieged by requests for letters of recommendation, whose only reward for teaching well is more students, and who complain that they are overwhelmed by grading and advising while other colleagues, who blow their students off, are home writing articles and getting more merit pay as a result.

Remember, you heard it here first.


Ahistoricality said...

Why not charge extra for courses with easy grades? A course which produces a higher-than-average grade spread one semester should cost more the next time, and faculty who commit to high-end grade distributions should get preferential scheduling.

Oh yeah: scheduling. Courses at odd times, especially early morning, should be discounted.

Anonymous said...

There is already differential pricing at elite colleges, based not on what you receive but on what you (or your family) is able to pay. Ironically, those who pay less are often those who appreciate the commodity more and make the most use of it.

Paris said...

Well this would certain solve a number of the financial issues adjunct and temporary instructors complain about.

Sharkey had a nervous breakdown the week that carry-on luggage was forbidden because he couldn't damn well charge people for it. He's an asshole but if he expanded to the US, it would be the only airline I'd fly because you could bet he'd find a way to run on time.

GayProf said...

Oooh -- I would so be on board with a program where commenting on papers was an explicitly paid for "frill." After all, most students ignore our suggestions anyway.

Profane said...

Sadly, there are many administrators who would not get the joke.

Reminds me of a perhaps apocryphal story of a faculty member's quip to a clueless administrator:

"If God had intended us to study foreign languages, then the Bible would not have been written in English."

The administrator agreed wholeheartedly. . .

Tim Lacy said...

More variable pricing schemes, based on students indicating at the beginning of the term what grade they expect to get.

a. If their final grade falls short, they could get some money back. I mean, the consumer is unhappy.

b. If they didn't utilize the resources necessary to get the grade they expected, they could pay the university a specified amount for each level below their expected finish. The producer overprepared for your lousy performance.

c. If the student scored higher than they expected, he/she would have to pay the university money for the extra learning and praise they obtained from the course (as well as extra resources used to obtain the higher grade). After all, the producer must break even.

d. If the student scored higher, then the university pays him or her because now the students positive performance will redound positively on the university.

This is absurdly fun. - TL