Product Placement at Universities

DellHallPublic higher education in the U.S. is not in good shape—and the main reason is lack of funds.  States will not increase their funding, and often they severely limit tuition increases.  My university appears to have hit upon a solution:  product placement and direct advertising.  The new computer building, the Gates Building, is part of the Dell Computer  Science Center, and has a Dell logo and signs for eBay and PayPal in front of the building.

But why stop here?  Five hundred students stare at me for 1-1/4 hours 28 times each fall semester.  The university could ask me to advertise—wear a cap, or a t-shirt, just like a tennis star—showing the product of whichever companies bid the most for the rights to advertise on my apparel during class.  While I would probably insist on some of the royalties, the bilateral monopoly between the university and me would surely raise funds for the university.  With enough professors required to do this, public universities could alleviate some of their financial problems. No doubt readers have similar clever ideas for product placement that would help fund public universities, albeit at some cost in dignity.

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



  1. Matt says:

    I’m for this primarily because it would be entertaining to see a professor, say, giving a lecture on monopoly pricing while wearing a Microsoft shirt.

    Incidentally, I’m also highly amused by Hamermesh advocating for selling out to corporations.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 0
  2. James says:

    I wonder where this “lack of funds” idea comes from? The local university is planning to spend something like $30 million on a supposed “Student Fitness Center” that will primarily be used to train its sports teams. Lack of funds, or misapplication of funds?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 46 Thumb down 2
    • Bill says:

      I agree with the misappropriation of funds. I went to a large state research university with enough money to replace the grass twice a year while undergraduates take classes with over 200 people packed in one lecture hall and only multiple choice tests to check if we were learning

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0
  3. Kentucky Packrat says:

    It’s interesting that the amount of money received per student by public institutions is at an all-time high, indexed against inflation, yet college education is failing from a lack of money.

    Excuse me, I think my sarcasm button is stuck on.

    There are three fundamental issues with colleges. The first is non-academic spending. Having a Vice President of Diversity and a Director of On-Campus Exercise Facilities might fit a wonderful checkmark list, but they divert money away from professors and classrooms. When colleges try to have the academic version of guns and butter, something has to give.

    The second is that they’re trying to grow too big and produce too much product. Most careers (including my own) that “require” a college education are really a trade that require no such thing. Between 50% and 75% of the people coming out of college are packing an education that will be of little to no help in actually finding a career that pays for a lifetime of work. By encouraging this dilution of their product, colleges have made their job harder.

    Finally, no producer of products can survive long-term on a business model that bankrupts their customers. 15 years ago, it was theoretically possible to work a full-time job over the summer and a part-time job during the year and pay for college. (Hard, but still possible.) Now, the only way to do so is to have a job that’s so good you’d be better off skipping the college entirely. Coming out of college 100k+ in debt is crazy; such a person is functionally bankrupt. Grants and loans have distorted the “real dollar” cost of the institution far past its breaking point.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 60 Thumb down 2
    • NZ says:

      I wish I could give this comment ten thumbs up.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0
    • NZ says:

      PS. I would add a fourth fundamental issue with college, which is that because going to college has become an extension of what’s considered the “standard education that everyone’s entitled to”, the bars to both admission and graduation have been drastically lowered. Not only is the labor market artificially saturated with useless-degree holders, but these degrees no longer even reliably signal that the people holding them are exceptionally bright or hard-working.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 24 Thumb down 0
      • Joe D says:

        My undergraduate institution (CWRU) just admitted a freshman class of 1250 out of some 70000 applications. No lowering the admission bar here.

        Thumb up 2 Thumb down 5
      • NZ says:

        Joe D, I don’t think your comment proves anything, though I also don’t see why it should deserve thumbs down. I’ll never fully understand why they have that system on this blog.

        Anyway, Case seems like a pretty exceptional school based on the handful of people I know who happen to work there and from other stuff I know about it. But for all I know they should in fact be admitting far FEWER than 1250 applicants!

        Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
    • Joe D says:

      The University of South Florida saw its state funding per student drop 25% (nominal, not real) from 2007 to 2012, then another $30M cut last year. “All-time high”?

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3
      • SB says:

        Great to see Florida doing what it needs to do to get its financial house in order. More colleges should follow suit. Now if they just let go their directors of public diversity and vice chancellors of on campus sex talks they’d probably be doing just fine.

        Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2
      • bob says:

        Yes, in the true freakonomics style, one outlier disproves the whole.

        Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
    • Joe J says:

      Part of the degree being required for any job, is due to discrimination lawsuits. Companies get in trouble/ face lawsuits if they use rational way of finding the best. So they are left with using degrees as a substitute idea.

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
  4. NZ says:

    If college undergrads had robust intellects capable of scrutinizing the messages shown to them, I wouldn’t really care. Unfortunately, the reality is that we’ve raised a generation who remain impressionable children well into their 20s, and through the creation or mismanagement of various institutions we’ve fabricated a standard template ensuring that future generations will follow this same pattern. Given that reality, I don’t think advertising to the captive audience of an undergrad college classroom is moral.

    (Of course, this also presumes the undergrads are awake, sober, and sentient enough to even notice they are being advertised to.)

    If you think my view of college students is excessively harsh, I urge you to go sit in a freshman English composition class at a state university for 5 minutes.

    But commenter James, above, gets at a larger point: why do universities need these extra funds in the first place? Institutes of higher learning got by perfectly well without product placement and “branded education” for thousands of years. What degradations have occurred that they are now in need of sellout money? Do we dare answer that question honestly?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0
    • Enter your name... says:

      One of the “degradations” is that professors (especially very senior full professors) are paid a lot more than they used to be.

      I’m not sure that this is really a problem. I’m also not sure how much this is offset by paying lecturers and adjuncts low wages.

      It would be interesting to have someone compare budget expenses over the decades at a handful of representative schools. We know that some facilities and room/board costs have gone up (fancier buildings, internet access for all students, bigger dorm rooms, better food, more institutionalized support for minority students), that other costs have gone down (fewer faculty secretaries), and that some things have changed radically without affecting classroom (science research paid by outside funding, which may be a profit center for the institution), but I’ve never seen a really good study on the matter.

      Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
      • NZ says:

        A few of the degradations I was thinking of can be illustrated by the example of my alma mater:

        -Its most popular sports team, men’s basketball, was only able to reduce–but not eliminate–the budget deficit created by the other sports teams. Most colleges, including my alma mater, don’t have an Ohio State football program, and so their athletic programs often net in the red. Title IX certainly doesn’t help with this problem.

        -While as a hungry penniless student I’d have to shell out upwards of $8 to get a meal at the Student Union cafeteria (Taco Bell across the street could fill me up for under $3), the fitness center in that same building was renovated and they installed an indoor rock wall.

        -Part of the aforementioned renovation of the Student Union included a sprawling brand new Multicultural and Diversity Center. Apart from the Diversity Officers who worked there doing what seemed like very little, this area was always empty.

        -There were a host of departments offering useless degrees (and paying professors lots of money to teach them) in subjects like Women’s Studies, Film Theory and Criticism, and Popular History.

        How might schools cut out the fat in a way that reduces tuition and budget problems?

        -Eliminate intermural sports programs that cannot pay for themselves
        -Eliminate most degrees that are both non-STEM and non-vocational (for example, keep film production but eliminate film theory)
        -Eliminate Cultural Centers, Diversity Departments, and the like
        -Eliminate on-campus housing and replace it with access to local apartment buildings that compete with each other
        -Eliminate meal plans and food services and replace them with access to restaurants and grocery stores that compete with each other
        -Drastically raise the bar for admissions
        -Eliminate affirmative action admissions
        -Give scholarships to outstanding students based on their need only, not based on diversity
        -Don’t build new facilities if old facilities still function well

        And most importantly,

        -Don’t lend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to people who under normal circumstances would never qualify for such a loan.
        -Stop talking about college as if it’s a standard part of education to which everyone is entitled and without which one should not expect employment or fulfillment.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1
      • Enter your name... says:

        Let’s look at your list:
        -End sports programs: Sure, you’ll get no objection from me. But many students want the fun and exercise they offer.

        -Feed students the cheapest junk food possible: Grease-laden tacos are cheaper than roasted chicken and salads… if the cost of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer and the like aren’t important to you. Furthermore, dining programs are both self-supporting and optional at nearly all schools, so there’s no effect on the school budget by closing the dining hall.

        -End cultural/diversity work: This will significantly decrease successful completion of school by minority groups, increase the risk of discrimination lawsuits (no place for informal assistance), and reduce the likelihood of white/male/straight students learning about cultural issues.

        -Close useless degrees: Those “useless” degrees tend to be cheap and relatively profitable programs. For example, teaching a women’s studies class requires no expensive lab equipment—just a chalkboard and a library. Your idea of “useless” might be too narrow: The only person I know with a “useless” film degree is supporting his family thanks to the entertainment industry these days. The only person I know with a “useless” degree in philosophy owns a Porsche. The only person I know with a “useless” degree in British literature is a well-off attorney. Once you get out of vocational areas (which ought to be taught at a vo-tech school, no?), major areas don’t correlate well with job outcomes.

        -Eliminate on-campus housing: On-campus housing is often a profit center, and almost always breaks even for the school. Furthermore, it’s almost always optional.

        -Drastically raise the bar for admissions: Why? Cutting enrollment isn’t going to improve profitability.

        -Eliminate affirmative action admissions: Why? Changing the color of the students isn’t going to improve profitability. A wealthy black student is more profitable than a middle-class Asian one. (The number of white students isn’t affected by these programs. Programs trying to “balance” students’ races tend to increase black and Native American enrollment at the direct expense of Asian enrollment.)

        -Eliminate diversity scholarships: Why? This money almost never comes out of the school’s own pocket. Why do you care if some private individual pays for minority students’ tuition?

        -Don’t build new facilities if old facilities still function well: Again, this money almost never comes out of the school’s budget. It’s almost always paid for by donors, and usually by donors who would not give that much money if they weren’t promised a shiny new building with their names on it.

        Your proposals are a nice reform package, but most of them don’t actually solve any budget problems.

        Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3
      • NZ says:

        @Enter your name…

        -I was talking about INTERmural sports, not INTRAmural sports, though if students want to get together and play sports/get exercise without any organized programs nothing is preventing them from doing so except themselves. Most college campuses aren’t hurting for open field space.

        -Not all affordable restaurants are grease-laden (Subway, for example, isn’t too bad, and most fast food restaurants offer inexpensive salads and low-carb options) and other restaurants frequently offer student discounts and special coupons, but I also mentioned grocery stores. Maybe you don’t believe students should have to learn how to cook if they can’t already? Dining programs are self-supporting because they charge students (or, their anxious doting parents) out the teeth for them. I said in my post I was looking for ways to cut both tuition and budgetary problems. Anyway, on-campus dining services also take up a lot of real estate and generate a lot of litter, and they don’t exactly seem to be countering the “freshman 15″ problem you hinted at earlier, either.

        -Besides being a money pit, cultural/diversity programs probably have no impact on minority completion rates, though there is a case to be made that they have a NEGATIVE impact on them. Resulting discrimination lawsuits would be frivolous, though I don’t know whether our court system recognizes this yet. Whether these programs actually result in many white/straight/male students gaining real lasting appreciation for other cultures, rather than just being browbeaten into political correctness, is doubtful, and in any case I am skeptical about the long term benefits of this appreciation even if it is truly acquired. Let me use myself as a case in point: I’m white male and straight, but I was born in the middle east and went to pre-K and kindergarten in Europe, at schools that were like mini-U.N.s. (For example, I had a Nigerian playmate named Nunu whose family ate frog eggs.) In high school I dated primarily outside my race, initially studied ethnomusicology in college, and I married someone outside my race. Though I’m monolingual, I can identify and differentiate dozens of languages. One of my favorite meats is squid. While it’s nice to be able to boast about all this ability to appreciate other cultures and bask in the richness of it all, almost none of it serves any practical purpose in my job, in my marriage, in my friendships, or in my day-to-day activities. In fact, it’s only practical function seems to be to shut the mouths of people who call me sheltered or closed-minded, allowing me to continue saying the often politically incorrect things I think 😀

        -You know some outstanding useless degree holders! Most of the useless degree holders I know are living with their parents and too overqualified to get hired at Target. I think it was this very blog (if not that, it may have been EconLog) that posted an infographic about how happy/successful various degree holders are with their degrees, and liberal arts majors were the least happy.

        -Like dining services, on-campus housing breaks even because it charges through the teeth to people in a vulnerable state. Furthermore, I don’t know if any research has been done on the long-term outcomes of students who live on- vs. off-campus, but I’d bet that off-campus dwellers are better prepared for the real world upon graduation.

        -Raising the bar for admissions will: reduce what I call the “idiocracy classroom drag”; reduce the portion of students requiring expensive administrative pampering; improve on-campus culture; improve long-term outcomes of graduates; improve the school’s reputation and endowment. Yes, you’ll get fewer students, but they’ll be better students, and they’ll remember your school for its high quality education rather than for hung-over classmates who could barely write a coherent sentence.

        -Affirmative action programs have to be administered, and that is expensive. Unqualified students being admitted solely on the basis of race or sexual preference or whatever else and then dragging down the quality of the school is expensive. And what do you have against Asians?

        -Asking “Who cares what detrimental programs people donate to?” is the broken window fallacy. But anyway, minority scholarships are immoral since they reward people for the color of their skin or their sexual preferences or whatever else. Most relevantly, they are often not linked to merit and thus result in the admission of students who otherwise would not qualify for admission, and that drags down the quality of education and results in other administrative expenses like I mentioned earlier.

        -The budgets for new facilities are often exceeded. Plus, there are other costs to new construction (not all of them monetary) that are borne by the school and its students, and often the taxpayers as well.

        Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
      • NZ says:

        PS. Another bonus of raising the bar for admissions–assuming lots of colleges do so–is that many high school graduates will opt instead to go work for a few years since they can’t get into college as easily. This will give them real-world experience, increased maturity, and several years’ worth of savings which they can then take with them should they later choose to reapply to college, where if they are admitted they will not need as much student aid or consume as many on-campus services.

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
    • Joe J says:

      I’d also toss in the idea of looking at tapping into endowments. Some universities the endowments are obscene, 30 billion at Harvard, and growing. All put together the endowments from us colleges are an the order of a trillion. It’s kind of silly hearing people with that kind of nest egg, whining about how they need money from the gov’t.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. Adam says:

    You might be disappointed to discover that the ad space on the pretty girl sitting in the front row is generating more impressions and a much better conversion rate than the logo on your hat!

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0
  6. chris says:

    Why stop at wearable ads? I’m pretty sure companies would be more willing to pay for a spot where they are sure to have students’ undivided attention: this exam question brought to you by Goldman Sachs, a great place to work!

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0
  7. Bob says:

    This exam has been sponsored by Adobe. Adobe, because we know you don’t buy our products anymore.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  8. Lindsay Resnick says:

    My alma mater, Georgia Tech, has the Ford Environmental Science and Technology Building, with a big ole Ford logo engraved into the stone. Here’s the best picture I could get, from Google Street View:

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  9. RandomJokester says:

    Advertise for Flomax or Avodart on the urinal cakes in the professor restrooms. The manufacturer gets plenty of ad time with the target audience.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  10. mfw13 says:

    I think part of the issue is that universities have many parts and that there is relatively little analysis of what gets spent where.

    For example, how much of an undergraduate’s tuition bill actually gets spent on items which an undergraduate can benefit from?

    Where does the money to pay non-teaching tenured professors come from? Is it all from grants, or does some of it come from tuition payments?

    Etc, etc.

    Never mind actually having a serious discussion about the purpose and function of a university…

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  11. caleb b says:

    Pensions are probably a huge expense. Paying people that USED to work until the final death gasp of either the worker or their spouse, well, it sounds like a stupid idea… especially for folks with zero actuarial inclination.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1
  12. Tarrou says:

    “Public higher education in the U.S. is not in good shape—and the main reason is lack of funds. ”

    I could not disagree more. Kentucky Packrat has done a bang-up job with his criticism, so I won’t attempt it in long form.

    Higher education is admitting too many people, hiring too many people who aren’t professors, lowering standards, spending FAR too much money on non-academic “lifestyle” facilities, and diluting their own brand with all of it. College is no longer education, it’s day care for adult children.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  13. Ethan says:

    I think this is an interesting idea, similar to what professional sports teams have begun taking into consideration for their practice jerseys as well as their actual game jerseys as has been seen in the MLS and the WNBA. My question would be whether it might be wiser for the Universities or corporations in question to have only the most popular professors don the brands of the highest bidders. That is to say: Might there be an association effect wherein popular professors contribute to a positive association with a brand whilst unpopular professors contribute to a negative association?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  14. steve cebalt says:

    Hi NZ: You make an excellent point in your reply to another person, when you say, “I don’t think your comment proves anything, though I also don’t see why it should deserve thumbs down. I’ll never fully understand why they have that system on this blog.” So true.

    — The binary voting creates a bias — one of the economists here could name the specific bias, I am sure — when I read comments. I am sure I interpret comments differently if they have very high or very low ratings.

    — High ratings are labeled “well loved.” Low ratings are “hidden.” The merit of an idea is not democratic. Popular does not = true, or valid. Tainting contrarian views with the “hidden” label seems very un-Freakonomics, especially given the motto, “The Hidden Side of Everything.” Although oddly, the “hidden” label always attracts my attention and readership MORE.

    — The binary false choice of Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down is a very crude metric — especially for a data-driven forum. Some scale — 1 to 10 or whatever — would yield more refined results.

    I suppose having no ratings would address these points best. But I do like a rating system for entertainment value. I’d propose a more refined 1-10 scale.

    Am I overthinking this? Of course. That’s sorta what we do here, and why we love this blog. :)

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0