Don't get me wrong - the speeches from our Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor, and from Ruth Richardson, were excellent. The awarding of the research medal was nice. The pomp and ceremony of the event is also itself important. Getting all dressed up in regalia is great fun for staff and students alike. A graduation ceremony consisting of those speeches, and some abbreviated degree-conferment ceremony with appropriate pomp, would be great. But I struggle to understand the utility function of those who attend graduations as they currently exist: a half-hour of good content interspersed among a couple of hours of watching, and applauding, a bunch of people you mostly don't know walking across the stage to be given their degrees in alphabetical order by degree.
I can imagine, as a student, the value of getting to walk across the stage and shake hands with the head of the University. And parallel benefits for the parents. But is that benefit worth the couple of hours of watching a few hundred* other people doing the same thing? Can it really be the case that the median student prefers the current form of graduation to one where we keep the nice speeches but forego handing out the diplomas to each graduand?
The first response is that students attend because parents demand it. But that just pushes the problem back a level: why should any parent prefer sitting there for two hours, watching a bunch of people they've no chance of knowing walk across the stage in exchange for the 45 seconds in which their kid gets to walk across the stage? The parents definitely enjoy watching their kid cross the stage, and I can understand getting utility that way; I would too. But at that cost? Surely there are other ways of celebrating your child's achievement: a graduation party at home with friends and family instead of formal graduation, for example. Even more puzzling: parents of international students fly in to attend; the two hours at graduation are a trivial part of the overall cost.
- The 45 seconds' utility trumps the time cost for most people; Crampton is a pod-person.
- Note that the second clause can be (is almost certainly) true regardless of the rest.
- The ceremony with public awarding of degrees is a binding enforcement mechanism preventing students from lying about their academic progress.
- But a lot of US schools run graduation with fake certificates because final grades haven't yet been tabulated!
- It's a horrible showing-you-care equilibrium. Parents attend because they want to demonstrate how much they appreciate their kids' having worked really hard to get their degrees; kids attend because their parents want them to and they want to show their appreciation for parents' financial support. Both would be better off if they could agree to a graduation party at home instead, but the one proposing it risks being seen as not caring.
- But then a University could do well at the margin by offering a more efficient graduation ceremony. Maybe they wouldn't really attract more students by it, but they'd at least save the opportunity costs of the stage party. That nobody does this suggests the median student isn't in the showing-you-care equilibrium.
- People attend to feel validated about having purchased this educational bundle. Sure, it's after the fact. But a nice ceremony makes the degree feel more credible both for those getting it and for those who funded it. It's a bit irrational: you should seek quality signals ex ante, not ex post, and I don't know of anybody who decides which school to attend ex ante on the basis of graduation ceremonies. But if it makes appliance buyers happy when their fridge's instruction manual starts out with a friendly "Congratulations on having chosen wisely in purchasing our brand!" maybe this holds here too. The obvious inefficiency of the ceremony, and observing that other parents attend, somehow signals the strength of the brand and the wisdom of their prior investment decision. In this version, waiting through all the other kids is a benefit, not a cost: "Look at all these fine young people among whose ranks my child now stands!"
Note also that I completely understand the University offering the event given that parents and students seem to demand it - none of this is meant as critique of Canterbury, or of any University's putting on these ceremonies. And I also understand Faculty attendance as part of the job. I'm struggling to understand the demand side, not supply.
Could somebody who is not a pod-person help explain why they enjoyed attending their graduation or their kid's?
I wonder whether there are testable hypotheses in here. We have records on student characteristics - tons of records. We know who attends graduation and who stays home. Some hypotheses:
- If students from lower-decile high schools are more likely to attend than those from higher-decile high schools, that's consistent with either opportunity costs of time being lower among attendees, or benefits of seeing the kid's graduation being higher where college attainment is less common.
- I'd predict higher proportionate attendance among those receiving first class than third class honours, mostly on the benefits side of the calculus (being announced to everyone as having first class honours)
- I'd predict higher attendance among those from underrepresented ethnic groups holding constant incoming school decile - benefits of seeing graduation higher where college attainment is less common.
- If the "showing you care" story is right, we expect highest attendance among those departments where "showing you care" is integrated into the discipline's way of being - Social Work, Cultural Studies - and lowest attendance among departments like Economics.
* Canterbury splits its graduation ceremonies across different days for different faculties to make things tractable. Commerce, Laws, Engineering, and Fine Arts was Wednesday afternoon. Relatively few Econ graduands attended graduation, suggesting their utility function is more like mine.