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.