Saturday, January 28, 2012

Krzyzewskiville: A Quick Policy Analysis

The New York Times recently ran a story partly devoted to describing a place I was unfamiliar with, Krzyzewski​ville. Named after the Duke University basketball coach (and also known, not surprisingly, as K-ville), it is a tent city that forms as Duke students line up early for admission to the big basketball game against UNC. K-ville has developed a surprisingly rule-governed culture. No tents are allowed before January 15--the big game is on March 3--and tenters are allowed to sleep indoors when the temperature is below 20 degrees F (heaters are banned). At all other times there are middle-of-the-night tent checks.

Let's leave aside the bigger questions that concerned the Times, about how even good universities have been sucked into the vortex of big-time athletics, and look at K-ville as a policy. The first question: why put students through this? Granted that K-ville is now a tradition and has a social aspect, it imposes pretty big costs on students. And those costs are what is known in economics as a deadweight loss: the loss to them is not a gain to anyone else. No one benefits from having students sleeping outdoors.

Why not, then, give away seats by lottery? This avoids the deadweight loss of six weeks in an unheated tent. But there is a slightly more subtle cost: a lottery does not ensure that the seats go to those who value them the most. Since there is little cost to signing up for the lottery, even those with a very modest desire to see the game will sign up, and some of them will get seats instead of more committed fans. From the standpoint of utilitarian philosophy, this is bad because it means that the allocation of seats will not produce as much total happiness as it could. And my guess is that it would be regarded as unfair by the hard-core fans.

So isn't there some way we can select those who really, really want to see the game, without making them waste huge amounts of time? For most goods, of course, there is such a mechanism: money.  Duke could sell tickets at a high price; only those who place a high value on tickets will end up buying them. And there is no waste because what is a cost to the students is revenue to the university (unlike the camping case, where the cost to the students is not a benefit to anyone).

This is the approach generally taken with alumni, businesses, and so on, but it would undoubtedly provoke outrage if applied to students. The problem is that students start with different endowments of money, and we tend to think that the key elements of the college experience--classes, dorms, extracurricular activities--ought  to be available to all regardless of parents' income. Most people would say that cheering for sports teams is one of those elements.

One solution would be to equalize the initial endowments, by giving all entering students artificial scrip money (call it, say, "ducats") that they can use for various things on campus. Students could then choose how to spend their ducats, and those who really, really want to see Duke and UNC play basketball could save up and spend all their ducats on that. Unfortunately, it's hard to think of what other possible uses for ducats could compete with The Game, and those that I can think of (pizza? mixers?) all end up costing the administration money.

My preferred solution goes in another direction: why not take the time now spent waiting in line and use it productively? Announce that any student who wants a seat at the Duke-UNC game must first spend, say, 100 hours (the number could be fine-tuned over time) doing pre-approved volunteer work. This not only separates the wheat from the chaff in terms of interest in the game, but also produces a hundred thousand hours a year of, for example, tutoring for disadvantaged kids in Raleigh and Durham and Greensboro. The program would also broaden the horizons of Duke students, give them an extra line for their resumes that looks a lot better than "Camped out on a patch of grass", send a message to students about what the University considers important, and polish the somewhat tarnished public image of Duke.

Sounds good to me, Duke. Get cracking.


  1. How about a tournament like the one described by Pat Larkey?

    [An Alternative to Traditional GPA for Evaluating Student Performance]: Comment: Adjusting Grades at Duke University
    Patrick D. Larkey
    Statistical Science
    Vol. 12, No. 4 (Nov., 1997), pp. 269-271

  2. Reading this post reminds me of your economics book. Now might be a good time to promote it. Can you remind me of the name?


  3. There must be millions of companies, organizations, etc, that could really use your mind. You really know how to think outside the box and find solutions where every one gains. I wish you could find one for the middle east conflicts! Unfortunately, even if you found it, I doubt the powers that be would listen.