Is it appropriate to charge parents and spectators for “premium seating” at commencement? This has been happening for a few years, though is not yet a widespread trend. Before we dive into this topic, we first need to establish that there are two types of premium seats. The first is based on comfort, and the second is based on vantage point. One has a remarkably different stigma attached to it than the other.
With respect to premium seating based on comfort, consider the University of South Carolina or Rutgers University. Both institutions hold graduation ceremonies inside a coliseum. Those arenas have private suites with plush seating and other amenities, and access to those areas is available to those spectators willing to pay for those luxuries. You would be hard pressed to find any outrage or news coverage about this.
As for premium seating based on vantage point, every year in recent memory, there have been headlines about schools selling tickets for seats that offer spectators an up-close view to watch their graduate cross the stage. Last year, Manatee High School in Bradenton, Florida received a significant amount of negative press for doing exactly that. In most cases, schools cite the need to offset some of the high costs associated with holding graduation ceremonies as a reason for the offer.
At sporting events and concerts, spectators who wish to spend money can buy the privilege of better seating. Airline passengers can do the same. However, perhaps it’s the aura of the occasion, but there is something about this practice that raises eyebrows at commencement. This seems to be particularly true on the high school level. Here are several things to consider if your institution is evaluating the sale of premium seats at your graduation ceremony:
Are there alternatives?
Commencements are a significant line item in any school’s budget. Funds appropriated for events at the end of the school year are sometimes the first to be reallocated when unexpected expenses arise. As such, it is not uncommon for commencement coordinators to operate with limited resources. Before selling access to premium seats, consider if there are any alternatives. Is an orchestra needed when pre-recorded music will do? Do the ceremony programs have to be printed in full color on pure cotton paper? Can flowers or catering be scaled down? Can limited advertisements be sold in the programs? Can a modest amount be added to students’ academic fees to cover the cost of the ceremony? Can concessions be sold at the event to raise money?
Look for the path of least resistance
If your ceremony venue has pre-existing box seats, private suites, etc., selling access to those areas is probably not going to cause too much commotion. One the other hand, if you intend on roping off the best areas of general seating, or setting up special chairs on the ceremony floor for those willing to pay, you can expect some pushback. And if the local media picks up on the story, expect pushback to turn into criticism. There seems to be very little exception to this rule.
Do no harm
For schools that offer paid access to a seat with a closer view of the ceremony stage, it is critical that those seats not block the view of other spectators sitting behind them, or otherwise negatively impact other graduates or family members.
In 2012, one high school in the southeastern United States created a premium seating section for some parents so close to the stage, that the handshake photographer had to be relocated some 40 feet away. That decision unfortunately ruined this photograph for every graduate at this once-in-a-lifetime event.
Be honest about the motives
For generations, parents who wanted the best seats to see their son or daughter recognized on stage would show up early and be standing at the door when the venue opened. When schools sell access to the best seats at commencement, they should be up front about why this is being done.
Make it palatable
If you’re able to advertise that a certain portion of the proceeds from the sale of premium seats will be donated to charity, that will help portray the practice in a better light. Additionally, consider reserving a few premium seats to give away at no cost to special spectators, such as members of the military, or school volunteers.
Set reasonable prices
What qualifies as “reasonable” will vary from school to school. For those who pay a noticeably high price, it sets them up to be viewed as elitist by the rest of the graduates and spectators. Parents willing to purchase a premium seat do not want to be placed in that situation.
Hold a raffle for premium seats
Some schools have tried this with great success. If money is a factor, a raffle for a limited number of premium seats can exceed the revenue generated by their outright sale. If revenue is not a factor, raffles can be used to drive a desired action. For example, Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota wants all graduates to complete a Senior Survey. Seniors who do so are automatically entered to win VIP seating for their family at commencement.
It is not appropriate to call attention to the premium seating areas at commencement, or the people who paid money to be there. So avoid the red carpet, velvet ropes, balloons, and waiters serving beverages. A simple “reserved” sign on the applicable rows, monitored by an usher, will suffice.
Note: this post was first published in January 2014, and was revised with updated information on April 27, 2015.