The article on parking in the July 23rd issue of IHE immediately caught my attention. I oversee one well located parking lot for administrators on campus and there is always significant interest in getting the OK to park in that lot. The article in IHE and the preceding presentation at the National Association of College and University Business Officers talked about the merits of “demand-based parking” where “the best spots near the center of the campus and high-traffic buildings would cost the most and spots in the hinterlands would cost less.”
As an economist, I fully understand the dynamics of such a process. Theaters have operated this way for a long time. The best seats with the best sightlines cost more and the nosebleed section costs less. Hotels operate this way as well, with rooms with a view costing more than rooms that overlook an airshaft. I was in such a room during a conference in NYC earlier this year. In this room, it was always night and I was certainly less than pleased. The business people who operate such a pricing system are pleased with the opportunity to make more money and the members of the public who can afford the higher price appreciate what they are getting in return for paying more money.
In education, however, I am, in general, uncomfortable with the prospect of paying to get a higher level of service. My discomfort doesn’t extend to residence hall charges and I understand that a single room needs to cost more than a double, which will cost more than a triple. I also understand that class standing is a major factor in securing the most desirable rooms in each category and I am comfortable with that system. Paying more to get a better seat in a classroom, being able to register earlier, or securing a particular course with a particular faculty member would be abhorrent to me. Education serves as an equalizer; it should not be compromised in this way, even if there is the opportunity to generate a few dollars more.
Parking is a more gray area. It is already apparent that income inequality is visible if you look at the student cars parked on any campus. Should we make it more apparent by in effect auctioning off desirable parking spots to the highest bidder? What if the revenues from these sports were used to fund more need based scholarships? Would that make it OK? Here there is no right or wrong. The economics, at the margin, could make such a system, a source of added revenues. But on the other hand it also helps create an impression that money facilitates additional privileges for students. I would prefer not to build in this kind of income inequality. On a typical campus, we have students who receive substantial subsidies that allow them to attend. Others receive merit awards and still others pay full or almost full tuition. All of this is invisible to the other students as well as the faculty and staff on the campus. Instead there is a sense of reasonable equality. I for one would like to keep that feeling in place to the greatest extent possible.