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February 18

Free Trip? No Such Thing

Question: I am a graduating senior and have received a number of offers to visit grad schools around the country, all expenses paid. I'd like to visit as many as possible, but some of these I have no real intention of going to. Is it a problem taking free trips out to these places when I won't be going there?

An all expense paid trip to an interesting place to be feted by people who want your services sounds too good to pass up, but it does not take an economist to remind you that there is no such thing as a free trip.

Your question, which addresses trips to visit graduate programs, applies equally well to job interview fly outs, and has been on my mind recently as my department has been in the process of trying to hire two new faculty members. So I write as someone on the other side of this issue: as a purveyor of free trips, albeit to Northfield, Minnesota in the middle of the winter! How would I want our job candidates to approach this ethical dilemma?

A fly out to a graduate school or potential employer is all about information sharing and is designed to bring about the best match between applicant and employer. The implicit moral contract in the process is as follows: we are seriously considering your candidacy (think how awful it would be to discover that a school had invited you out for political or courtesy reasons, and had no real intention of considering you for the position) and will offer you a free trip to learn about us. In exchange you are coming to our organization in good faith and, if we sell ourselves well, there is a realistic prospect that you will accept a potential (or already confirmed) offer.

What is required to meet this “realistic prospect” standard is a genuine openness to considering this position, given what you know about your other current or likely options. While a candidate who is genuinely undecided has a good rationale for making an all expense paid campus visit, it is worth considering some of the hidden costs associated with a campus visit on the part of one with “no real intention” of going to said institution.

The issue here is not simply the free ticket, lodging and meals, though those costs are real, even for large organizations. There is, of course, the cost of your own time. There is also the non-monetary cost to your host. Visits by applicants are incredibly time consuming and emotionally draining as hosts entertain visitors and disrupt their normal routines. Imagine hosting a prospie who told you that he had already committed to Williams but just wanted the trip to Northfield. In addition, there are those other applicants who don’t get the flyout you are taking. Scarce resources obviously limit the number of applicants who can visit and your trip displaces someone who might truly want the opportunity you are enjoying. Finally there is the small but not insignificant matter of Carleton’s reputation.

While you can hardly be expected to carry the College’s whole reputation on your shoulders, it is important to recognize you do play some small role in creating and sustaining that reputation, especially in the small world of grad schools or potential employers who may not meet that many Carleton students. If you appear unserious or selfish in accepting a fly out, this potentially generates costs, albeit small but arguably non-zero, for future Carleton students.

So if, in your heart of hearts, you know that there is no “realistic prospect” that you will accept admissions or a job offer from an organization that offers you a fly out, say, “No, thank you” and buy your own ticket on Priceline.

Michael Hemesath

Economics Department

16 February 2005