Think, Know, Prove is a regular Saturday feature, where a topic with both mystery and importance is posted for community discussion. The title is a shortened version of the Investigative Mantra: What do we think, what do we know, what can we prove? and everything from wild speculation to resource referencing fact is welcome here.
It’s just about impossible to be around the school during registration week and the first week of classes and NOT hear the word “UPass” fewer than 50 times. Students talk about it with great frequency–need to be full time to get the UPass, missed my day to get the UPass, had to wait in line to get my UPass, etc.
I was working in the marketing department at the CTA when the UPass program was developed, piloted, and established back in 1997 and 1998. From the CTA side, the program was desirable as a loss leader (which means it was a money loser) because, at the time, they were all about building ridership. The line of thought went something like if the CTA could get more riders (especially “off-peak” riders, i.e. non-rush hour) and show steady ridership growth, then they could make a better case for more state and federal funding for projects like the Brown Line renovation; and it worked like a charm. The CTA figured that schools would want it as a value added service for students, and that students would pay for it because it was such a good deal (if they used the CTA). They were afraid of students passing them around though, so the rule was that if a school got it, then that school had to require it for all full time students. Every full time student paid the fee whether they used it or not (which helped offset some of the cost), and everyone figured that students wouldn’t complain about one more fee being tacked on to an already long list.
Remember that this was back in 1998.
12 years later the state of the economy is much different, and the UPass is as entrenched in the process as the application fee. It is a kind of fact of life. Yet, I can’t help but think about whether it still makes sense.
Anyone who has talked books with me in the last two years has probably heard me talk about Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Gary Thaler. It is a truly fascinating exploration of recent research in choice theory (a hybrid area of economics and psychology) and the political implications of the current knowledge. The book has deeply affected my teaching in all kinds of ways, and it has also led me to regularly consider the effects of incentives.
For example, the UPass encourages students to enroll full time, which research shows is good for student retention and success. Yet, we’ve all had a lot, I’m sure, of experiences in registration where we had a student who was willing to take anything in order to get to that magic twelfth hour and get that UPass. The UPass provides an incentive for students to enroll in college classes, but it also provides an incentive for students who are failing a class to NOT drop the class, lest they fall below full time and lose their free ride. The UPass is a really good deal for a lot of students who ride public transportation regularly, and it is well worth the fee for them. It is also yet another fee using up money that might otherwise go to books, child care, medicine, and the rest, especially for those students who don’t take the CTA down to school (and there are many), or who do so infrequently.
My point is that we have this thing now, the UPass, which goes unchallenged and undiscussed, presumed to be good, but without discussion and amid very different circumstances than those under which it was created.
So what about the UPass? Is it good? Should we have it? Should we get rid of it?
What do you think? What do you know? What can you Prove?