Rumblings regarding Michigan's student section have went on for years, but only recently has it begun to receive media, blogger, and fan attention. Many have been disappointed in student attendance and participation at football games. There have been several games where there were some noticeable gaps in the crowd not only at kickoff, but also deep into the game. Home field advantage is something that's very important to a team's success and when people aren't showing up, part of that advantage goes away.
I am a student myself and I believe I have a unique perspective on the issue. There is no doubt that the student section hasn't been fully showing up to games. It used to be a rare occurrence, but starting in last year's home game against Minnesota, it's become an expectation that many in the student section will show up late. There have been some very poor showings and it's not something that makes me happy as a student. There is an issue and the question needs to revolve around potential ways to address the problem.
I have heard several policies to either encourage or force students to get to the games on time. They include shrinking the student section, moving to general admission (first come seating basis), and setting up some sort of point systems to encourage attendance. All of these provide advantages and disadvantages and I don't think any one of them is a perfect solution. Yes, they may encourage attendance, but considering student needs is also vitally important to any university policy.
Research has shown consistently that this generation's college students are more busy than any in history. Are they too busy to go to a game? No, students have the ability to make it to all the games and to all the games on time. However, it's something worth noting, especially when you're talking about a game against a MAC team (or worse) in a home game. Students don't have as much free time as many outside would assume and many would rather do other things than watch the 1st quarter (or more) of a blowout game. I personally love anytime I can get in the Big House, but we all know fan dedication varies by individuals and their schedule.
Following along with this, students also do more to assert their right for tickets than probably anybody else in the stands. Of course, alumni went through the same path as current students and some fans have had tickets in their families for generations, but people often forget that students receive the right to buy tickets because they pay school tuition. That puts them anywhere from $20,000-$40,000 a year for the right to get an education and the right to PURCHASE tickets to sporting events. They don't even get free tickets. To me, those contributions are probably a lot more worthy than showing up to a game on time. Not that this is an excuse not to show up, but it is something that's important when accessing their right to purchase tickets.
Plus, let's not discount the fact that although the student section is smaller and may have weaker attendance than the general fanbase, they are way louder and way more vocal than other fans. I don't even want to try to imagine how quiet the Big House would be without the students. It would just be a bunch of people sitting on their hands, getting up for a 3rd down here and there, and complaining that people aren't loud enough and don't show enough dedication. Until the fanbase makes more noise or ACTUALLY WEARS MAIZE, I don't think it's their job to tell the students they make the crowd look bad.
But these observations still leave the issue of poor student attendance. How can the athletic department improve attendance without negatively impacting the student population. Will shrinking the student section have a large negative effect? Probably not, but I do think it's kind of ridiculous that you could attend the University of Michigan, spend up to $40,000 on tuition, and not even have the right to purchase football tickets. To me, that concept is completely mind-numbing.
What about the other solutions? General admission for football seating is just asking for problems. I will use Penn State as an example since they have a stadium, enrollment, and fanbase roughly the size of Michigan. Penn State currently institutes a student general admission policy and the results are not something I would like to see happen in Ann Arbor. Their students spend the weekends camping out for games instead of doing other tasks like studying, working, or extracurriculars. It's undoubtedly a waste of time for students and uses up valuable free time for no logical reason.
A ticket point system has already been instituted, but isn't as tough as many want it to be at this time. The "Hail" program gives students points for attending all athletic events and more points for attending events on time. Many want this to dictate ticket priority and for those that don't attend games to lose their tickets. I think the athletic department can certainly work on the Hail program and make the rewards more encouraging, but the system has already shown some major flaws and I would be enraged if it impacted my ability to buy season tickets. The phone apps for the program almost never work and make checking in "on time" practically impossible. Plus, if they actually use this for things like ticket priority and things like phone apps don't work, the lines are stands to "check in" will be insanely long, making students show up way earlier than other fans. This already happens at basketball games when students are forced to show up an hour or more earlier than other fans. It's truly unfair to try to create that type of scenario.
The bottomline here is that many will make you believe there is a simple solution for the student attendance problem like shrinking the student section, but the problem is not that simple. Most of the impacts of the proposed solutions would have largely negative effects on the students that are extremely busy, pay outrageous tuition, and make the most noise during football games. Changes to things like the Hail program could help, but I still have yet to see a policy that really would increase attendance without hurting students. Until then, we need to hold off on simply endorsing ideas that will make the student section "look good" without truly considering the impact.