A Possible Law & Economics Solution to the George Mason Graduation-Gate

March 3rd, 2011

So there is a bit of a kerfuffle at George Mason Law School, my alma matter, which is  forcing graduating students to spend $136 on renting graduation robes and regalia.  ATL reports that a number of students have sent a note to the administration complaining about this exorbitant rent (I think that is the first time I ever used the word rent in its normal context with respect to GMU, public choice FTW).

The administration denied this request:

Over 100 soon-to-be graduates have already placed orders for caps and gowns, and those orders have been placed for production with the manufacturer. That means that if we changed the policy now to permit an opt out from cap and gowns to a student choice of courtroom attire, those students who have diligently placed orders would not be permitted a refund. Essentially, the opt out would not be an option for most students. Accordingly, we are maintaining our policy this year of requiring caps and gowns for participation in the Convocation Ceremony.

The students are perturbed and are now circulating a petition:

Some students have expressed a desire for uniformity in the class picture. We believe this concern merits discussion. But we also believe that since students bear this expense, a decision should be made by the students, not the administration. For the foregoing reasons, the undersigned request that the Administration remove its requirement of renting regalia in order to walk in the graduation ceremony, or in the alternative, to allow the students who bear this expense to vote on the matter. After all, it is our graduation.

Like any good GMU student, lets consider this from a law and economics perspective.

First, the costs. Obviously, for the students who do not wish to rent the robes, the cost is $136. In the context of the 6 figures in debt they have likely incurred over three years following successive tuition increases, this seems like a pittance, but it is a tangible cost. When I graduated in 2009 I was quite annoyed about this cost, but just sucked it up before I gave BarBri several thousand dollars to teach me what I paid law school to teach me. Now, what are the other costs? Well in my mind, the most obvious cost is that those without robes on will ruin the class picture. The desired uniformity of class pictures is a legitimate interest.

Now, applying the Coase Theorem, it would seem to me that those without robes are exerting a negative externality on those that desire a uniform photograph. Rather than having a government (or law school administration) imposed solution, like the emitting smokestack, the disrobed students should bear the costs of their externality. Now this cost need not be the $136 it costs to rent the robe. No, it can be much less.

How does this sound? The official GMU photographer takes two sets of photographs. One with the disrobed students, one without. Let’s evaluate this option. For those rebellious students unwilling to pay the amount, they will have a photograph including them. For those pristine students who shudder at the thought of having disrobed students in their photograph, they will have a pure and unadulterated photograph. Granted, this may seem a tad unfair to the disrobed crowd, but come on, you need to internalize your externalities.

In the words of Charlie Sheen, this is bi-winning. You win here, and you win there. TIgerblood GMU. TIgerblood.

Plus, let me clue you in to something. You will never find your face in the class photo. It is tiny, blurry, and pixelated. I never even bought a copy of my class photo. It’s not that big of a deal.

Problem solved. Coase Theorem FTW.