Stop handing out free things

Jonas Doerr-

Last month, the Student Senate passed a referendum and an amendment towards increasing the student activity fee on campus. While the proposed increase was only $10, the Student Senate should stop allowing organizations to waste money on free gifts and prizes before increasing this form of taxation on students.

Currently, each student pays $200, which then goes to various organizations on campus. The organizations can use it for equipment, supplies, or hosting events. For example, the Asian Student Union hosted the Asian Night Market last weekend, which gave students an opportunity to try a diverse array of cuisines and learn more about Asian cultures. This type of event is an excellent use of our student activity fee.

Often, organizations will use funds to provide food at events. This encourages students to come to events and builds a strong Gustavus community as students eat together. Plus, it presents a way for students who are already $350 over their meal plan budget to avoid digging that hole deeper.

However, the most egregious use of the student activity fee is to hand out prizes to event attendees. Whether purchasing Apple devices, Squishmallows, or succulents, Gustavus organizations are creative at buying new things to hand out. But that mental effort ought to go to planning events that don’t require a form of bribery to attract students.

First of all, prizes squelch the intrinsic motivation students might have to go to events in the first place. A 1985 study by E. L. Deci and R. M. Ryan found that increasing extrinsic motivation often decreases intrinsic motivation. That is to say, if people are offered rewards, they will be more motivated, but the natural motivation they had to do something simply out of enjoyment starts to fade away.

The same thing happens by giving away prizes at campus events. Students start to scan emails and posters to see if they like the prizes being handed out, instead of the events happening. Students go to events that were supposed to be educational and smile and nod just to get the prize, immediately forgetting whatever they were supposed to learn.

Prizes indeed attract more students. But isn’t our goal to develop students into healthy community members, who will later take the initiative to build social ties in the environments they find themselves in? We want to build a united community at Gustavus, but the only unity prizes facilitate is the shared desire to win an iPad.

Senior Peer Assistant Jay Baldus says, “Sometimes, I see people come to our events, and when they see we don’t have food or prizes, they walk away. So that’s why we usually have food or prizes.” It’s not the Peer Assistants’ fault; they put on creative events that cover a lot of useful topics for students’ wellbeing. But since everyone hands out free stuff, students expect to be given something for free at every event they go to.

Second, handing out prizes encourages people to buy things indiscriminately regardless of whether they actually need it or the environmental price of the prize itself. A good prize, if there is such a thing, is usually something most people don’t have. It follows that a good prize is also something most people don’t need; otherwise, they would have bought it already. Hence, prizes try to make people happy by giving them something they don’t need.

Does Gustavus want its students to learn to find happiness through unnecessary purchases? That type of behavior is unsustainable, and not just because you’ll run out of money. Let’s take an Apple device as an example since those are the grand prizes of some events. According to Population Matters, an organization dedicated to reducing humanity’s impact on the planet, Apple as a company produces more emissions than 70 nation-states and uses over 100 billion gallons of water per year in its supply chain, and less than a fifth of its materials used are recyclable or reusable.

We could try to purchase prizes from more sustainable sources, but there will always be shipping and production costs. The most effective way to protect the environment is to buy less.

So should the Student Senate immediately ban organizations from spending money on prizes? That could be one effective solution. The Student Senate already has policies that decrease the budget of organizations that do not spend all of their allocated money. So, this solution would reward organizations that could quickly adjust and find new, creative ways to edify the student body.

However, I think students should have a choice on this matter. Currently, everyone is forced to pay for these prizes, whether they support it or not. Gustavus could implement a system similar to the current Slingshot system, where students can choose to opt out of part of the student activities fee. While students who opt out would not be entered to win prizes at events, they would be able to choose for themselves whether to support sustainability and the intrinsic value of community.

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