It’s just a few weeks until graduation (or, if you’d prefer to signal your boorishness, commencement), and preparations are well underway. But no preparation is further along than George Mason University’s plan to extract every last cent from students on their way out the door.
In economics, payments that come to you because of some privilege are called rents. When you try to accumulate more special privileges, your actions are called rent-seeking behavior. And no one knows more about rent-seeking behavior than the folks coordinating graduation.
I’ve received three letters addressed to my parents (although I have been independent from them for over 10 years) advertising diploma frames. Most diplomas have a landscape orientation. In fact, just about any stock diploma frame available is built that way. Mason diplomas, however, have a letter orientation.
If Mason diplomas were like all those others, you could pick up a diploma frame and mat at any office supply store. But a hard-to-find, letter-oriented mat will probably have to come from the university’s official supplier.
Graduating in a black cap and gown is supposed to be a hallmark of completing university. Most schools leave the gimmicky colors where they belong: in high school ceremonies. The broad availability helps to lower costs, as more suppliers can be found. The gown in which I received my associate’s degree I later reused to receive my bachelor’s degree.
My master’s degree, though, can only be conferred if I wear a green robe. My wife’s college also used a non-standard color, but they recognized the burden it created for students and rented the robes for only a refundable deposit. Mason does not rent bachelor’s or master’s robes.
Don’t think that you can spread the cost over more than one graduation, though. Should you receive both your undergraduate and graduate degrees from Mason, you will find the bachelor’s robe is not the same style as the master’s robe, and cannot be reused. You must buy two separate single-occasion gowns.
I have borrowed a master’s robe from a friend. He received his degree from Mason just two years ago. However, when I took a snippet of fabric to the bookstore to ensure uniformity, the color was just a tiny shade off from those now being required. The manufacturer, design and school have not changed, but the rents are much higher when reuse is prohibited.
Rent-seeking behavior is rampant. This is the force behind children’s car seats having expiration dates. When our youngest child was born, a hospital worker had to come to my car and ensure the car seat was sufficiently new or I would not have been allowed to drive my son home.
More recently, Congress has enacted the mother of all rent-seeking legislation, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. This law raises the costs of toy retailing to prohibitive levels, covering even garage sales. Who benefits when the only toys for sale are new toys? No one but toy manufacturers.
Rent-seeking behavior is wasteful in that it produces nothing; it only seeks to profit from an artificial arrangement.
Mason should use standard diploma formats and graduation gown colors and designs, and stop seeking rents from graduating students.