Victor Margolin

Everyone knows that university sports have become a big business and increased access to their aura and actual content is a great way to raise money. Besides luxury stadium seats, there are the intimate dinners with star athletes, free DVDs of great games, gifts of jerseys with the numbers and names of outstanding players on them, and even an opportunity to meet with coaches pre-game to put in one’s two million dollars worth of strategy advice. These ideas are good but they miss the mark.

The biggest money to be made in a university is the commodification of campus life. Today, universities are being run like socialist societies. All services are equally available to every student on an equal basis. In exchange for tuition, students have a chance to sit in the front of a lecture hall if they get there first. They can also request time with a professor or teaching assistant as an entitlement and not as something they have to pay extra for. And they can use the library, the gym, or the student center without additional charges. Well, all that could change. Charging for student life could become a university’s newest revenue stream. There are ample precedents in contemporary societies everywhere. The premise is: Those who can pay more, deserve more. That’s why we have different classes of seating on airplanes and in the theater. But that’s the old version. The new version of what I call “social commodification,” alters the expectations of what one is entitled to without payment and what one has to pay for. Consider the shrewd airlines that now make customers pay for baggage and the privilege of choosing their seats. Doctors who once exhausted themselves by seeing masses of patients have now realized that they can become “boutique doctors” by seeing only a few patients who pay more for exclusive service.

These are lessons for the universities. Lets begin with classrooms. As things stand today, a student can walk into a classroom and take any seat, whether in the front or the back row. Why not pay extra for the better seats? When students sign up for a class, they can see a range of seating options and pay for the one that suits them best. And why not pay for library hours and time at the gym? Every student could receive with their tuition or scholarship a set of basic vouchers, which could be increased with extra payments. Lets say that a student had enough vouchers to use the library ten hours a week. Additional hours could be added through campus-wide vending machines where students could purchase them with a credit card. As departmental budgets are cut, a department could sell access to its faculty. In fact, some of the best faculty might become boutique professors, holding office hours for fewer students who pay more for the time with them. The costs of face time with professors could be prorated based on their rank, the number of books and articles they have published, and the number of offers they have received from other universities. The library could also charge for face time with reference librarians who would offer the first several minutes of consultation free and then escalate charges for additional time. The library reserve desk could get in on the act by charging for the amount of time a reserve book remains on a shelf before it is picked up. Students who did not pick up their books within a day of when they arrive would have to pay a fee for each additional day with the fees escalating progressively.

I am sure that there are many other university services that students could be charged for but those suggested here are a decent beginning. As revenue from additional student fees mounts, it may be possible to begin reducing the price of tickets for sporting events so that eventually attendance could be free for everyone. No need for expensive seats. The most needy scholarship student could sit next to the wealthiest alum. Now that’s socialism at its best.

Victor Margolin is Professor Emeritus of Design History at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is currently working on a World History of Design to be published by Berg in London.