Friday, May 10, 2013

Education is not Euvoluntary: Implicit Contract Edition

A friend of mine asked me recently for a spot of advice. It seems that one or more of his students did not attend the scheduled final. Mr. M. found himself at loggerheads with his conscience. What's the greater offense, to dole out a passel of zeros and have to wrestle with the hassle of failing students (and those of you in the academy can testify what a pain that can be) or to indulge the students' irresponsible behavior?

I offered what I thought was reasonable advice (zeros all around), but it occurred to me that perhaps I have a different notion of what constitutes the de facto college contract.

Now, there is a de jure contract. That's all the boilerplate you agree to as an undergrad: don't cheat, don't accept payment for athletic services rendered blah blah blah. But none of that stuff is in the actual contract as she is understood. What's worse is that this tacit contract is largely invisible to all these poor, sleep-deprived grad students that end up teaching. We have a different contract in a PhD program, one that just doesn't apply to the typical undergrad. And you know what's worse? We harried grad students believe that nothing of substance has changed in our university contract. How's that for loony?

So what's actually in the standard undergrad contract?

Well, in return for being an FTE and going into deep hock for the next quarter century, the institution agrees to boost the student's labor market potential, to indulge a modern, secular version of what the Amish call rumspringa and to give parents a sense of pride and accomplishment. Other terms are available a la carte to any student at no additional charge. Free speech not included. Consult upperclassmen for details on additional riders. Don't poke the MBAs.

For your typical grad student, the contract is all that a la carte stuff: expanding your mind, developing critical thinking skills, learning how to be a more effective communicator, discovering how to navigate the academic job market, making solid professional connections... all that jazz. That stuff is great, but you're fooling yourself if you think that these things have anything to do with the purpose of college as understood by the median student. Now, in a perfect world, these elements might well be the core of the university experience, and I think they've all got a whole lot of merit. Perhaps in a world where the marginal student is motivated differently and where the labor market finds its signals elsewhere (and where kids can go off on a drunken bacchanalia in lands far from the lights of civilization should they so choose), things might be better sorted. But that's not the world in which we live.

I'm more or less confident that veteran professors have this all figured out. I know for sure that my patron here at EE is wise to all this. But for all my novice readers, I encourage you to be more sensitive to the possibility that the rhetoric you hear from the academy might be no different in kind than the kayfabe that spills from the mouths of elected officials.

Education ain't euvoluntary. Confusion and disagreement over the terms of the contract does not help make it more so.


  1. This comment is off topic, but I just thought of a possible way to think about Euvoluntarism... Could a market be described as Euvoluntary if its demand curve was perfectly elastic? It seems to make sense to me that the economical analog to this philosophical idea would be elasticity.

    Among the main things I have bouncing around my head on this, think about a monopoly producer... with a perfectly elastic demand curve, the outcome is exactly the same as with a competitive market of producers. No matter the structure of the supply market, the demanders get the exact same thing. How is that not practically the definition of Euvoluntarism?

    1. Good question. I think that elasticity has a lot to do with the BATNA and coercion conditions, but there's still a bit of a problem with the externality and perhaps regret conditions.

      Part of the original reasons for "no ex post regret" were to omit cases of addiction and fraud. You can imagine other sources of regret however, and they're not necessarily obviated by price elasticity of demand.

      But the big one that occurs to be is the externalities. Even if the market for asbestos were perfectly elastic, its sale wouldn't be considered euvoluntary since lots of folks came down with asbestos-related mesothelioma.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?