Free Laundry is a Fallacy

If you read this blog regularly, you’re very well aware that I go on a lot of campus tours. (Since becoming an educational consultant seven years ago, my tally sheet shows that I’ve been on 109 of them if you’re keeping score.) This means I’ve learned about a wide variety of campus traditions, meal plans, library policies, academic programs, and more. (And let’s not even get started on the number of steps I’ve logged on the old FitBit!)

Still, in the past couple of years, the favorite moment I’ve had on many (many!) tours goes something like this:

Our group enters a residence hall with a mock dorm room set up for families to tour and the tour guide proudly proclaims: “And we get free laundry too!”

If you’re a parent or student reading this blog, you may or may not have caught the utter fallacy in that statement. In fact, if you’re a parent, your first outraged thought is probably something along the lines of “That’s not fair! I scrimped and saved every single quarter I could find so I could have clean socks when I was in college!” (Believe me, I feel you on that one.) But let’s dive a little deeper into the “free” laundry statement, readers, because it’s actually part of a bigger picture families often fail to consider during the college search.

To put it succinctly: There is no such thing as free laundry.

Those who have taken Economics 101 remember the theory that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that’s very much the same thing demonstrated here. As an English major during my undergraduate years, however, the initial point I usually make for these adorably perky tour guides is of the semantic variety – namely, the correct term to use when it comes to laundry in college residence halls isn’t free, but rather included. It appears to be free because the students don’t need to use quarters or a swipe card to cover the additional charge of each load of wash, thereby not accruing any additional cost at the moment the laundry is done. The cost has already been covered in some way by the institution, however – typically by rolling it into housing fees and therefore it is an included cost and not a nonexistent one.

But Randi, why are we haggling over laundry semantics?

We’re haggling because it isn’t just semantics, readers. Though parents can fume all day about the skyrocketing costs of attending colleges these days (you aren’t wrong, but that’s another blog for another day), the same simple economics that govern the idea of included laundry in the residence halls governs other parts of the college experience – which is to say that there is always a cost to be taken into consideration for services that don’t have a direct charge – and sometimes it’s bigger than you think.

Let’s use a varsity equestrian team as an example:

In many (but not all) cases, students who are selected to be part of a varsity equestrian team incur no additional fees for this privilege. The costs of competition, travel, uniforms, and even riding lessons may be included (not free remember) in team membership, meaning that students have no additional costs charged directly to them when they participate in team activities.

But what’s included in the non-billed cost to the students?

There are a variety of things that can be assessed in return for not charging a direct monetary fee, including:

  • Work in the stable
  • Minimum GPA requirements
  • Mandatory team workouts
  • Team and athletic department fundraisers
  • Organizational activities related to the team

Each of these has a direct time cost as opposed to a monetary one and the challenges students may face as a result include:

  • Reduced time to study
  • Reduced time to sleep
  • Reduced time to earn a paycheck at a part time job
  • Increased stress levels

Each student, of course, has different expectations for what his or her college experience will be, but the reality presented by each individual program and how it’s run has to potential to either meet or alter those expectations when a student joins the team. As a result, students and their parents need to assess for themselves what costs are most important to them as they consider what the next four years will look like:

Is it easier to pay direct fees to a club program (or other type of varsity program) than to sacrifice study time in his or her academic program?

Is a student’s financial situation such that working off the program’s included costs is a better use of his or her time than taking on a part time job during school?

Is the student capable of balancing the requirements of school and the team when the cost to participate is indirect (labor) instead of direct?

College is expensive and that’s a statement that no one can dispute. But when searching for the right fit college and riding program (and laundry options!), it’s important to assess all of the associated costs and what they mean for each individual student.

And hey, it beats saving those laundry quarters.

(Need help assessing the costs of various college programs? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book.)


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