When I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, the university built a posh outdoor swimming pool next to the campus’s main recreational facility. But it wasn’t a lap pool or an Olympic-style pool. It wasn’t built primarily for exercise. It was a lounging pool, with serpentine borders, tons of deck chairs, shady palms, and a snack bar. It looked in every way like something that you might see at a fancy resort, minus the booze. That pool, built purely for the purposes of coeducational sunning and fraternizing, represents an investment that UT-Austin made into the social experiences of students, arguably a distant remove from the university’s academic mission.
I suspect that when you have a high-end and highly identifiable brand, as UT-Austin does, that such amenities help to further “sell” the university to well-heeled undergrads. For better or worse, universities can and will maintain enrollments, at least for a time, not by (or not only by) improving academic experiences, but by improving students’ material surroundings and social experiences. The logic of such expenditures — which are common and ongoing on different scales at many campuses nationally — makes sense only if we view students as customers, as payers of tuition that colleges need to rope in with sweeter and sweeter deals.
We are undeniably in an era where the governing model of education is one that conceives of students as customers. In fact, this cognitive model of how colleges and students relate to one another, that of a business selling to customer, is currently so deeply rooted in how we see and discuss higher education that it can be difficult to even imagine other frames or metaphors for the relationship between educators and those who access that education. In our era of economic survivalism, students are not only customers, but, insidiously, are becoming marks, the unwitting victims propping up an unsustainable model of education.
Here are some of the symptoms of the corrosiveness of the student-as-customer model:
- We woo students with slick advertising. Some people feel that, as an industry, higher education over-recruits students. I’m not sure that we do or don’t. Yet, instead of asking the question of whether or not we over-recruit, we simply invest more and more in advertising and public relations endeavors designed to recruit more and more students, perhaps unsustainably so. The fundamental thinking, writing, and analytical development that takes place within the core of liberal studies education (while atrophying, still the core collegiate experience that connects students of all majors at most colleges and universities) benefits all students of all majors, and even students in two-year degree programs. Instead of investing in the liberal studies or general education elements of curricular experience, we recruit, recruit, recruit. Our institutions focus on the point of sale, often to the neglect of the delivery of the educational product.
- We extend these student-customers an astounding amount of easy credit. If students are customers, they need money to spend. The student-as-customer model allows us to rationalize (actually, rationalizes for us) the cycles of student-loan debt that increasingly appear to mortgage many young graduates’ futures. Such logic also allows us to write off as unwise those students who accumulate large debts on seemingly “impractical” degrees, without acknowledging the larger cycle of recruitment and easy-credit through which such students are convinced to buy into, literally, their university in the first place.The burden of debt has been shifted onto students in the first place, because state legislatures appear to be less and less inclined to subsidize education, despite it demonstrated long-term benefits, on the very logic that students are “customers” and that we ought not underwrite individual purchases. Not even educational ones that benefit the culture and state at large.
- We turn universities into brands. Marquee universities (think state flagships and famous private universities) trade primarily on their brand names. This allows universities to sell the perception of what the university achieves, rather than focusing attention and resources on academics. It also justifies potentially corrupt and exploitative athletic programs in the name of brand recognition and alumni contentment. The impulse to protect the brand also frequently compels universities to shirk responsibility when missteps or scandals occur, rather than immediately taking responsibility and corrective action.
- We focus on growth for growth’s sake. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to grow academic programs and colleges and universities. But too many institutions grow for the sake of growing itself, because it is the only way to increase revenue. Such growth is unsustainable, on a variety of fronts. For example, in my state of North Carolina, state funding is tied in part to enrollment growth, and in an era where the state legislature has cut budgets to the bone, one of the few ways for universities to see increased funding is to increase the numbers of students on their campuses, with predictable complications.
- We vocationalize higher education. In the student-as-customer model, students and their parents both begin to ask a “what am I buying?” question. A postsecondary education is not a guarantee of success. It is not the straight-forward purchase of a better future. It never has been. But when the entire educational system conceives of students as customers, a burden of responsibility shifts. It shifts from the student, whose responsibility might once have been to go out and put the education to use, to the university, which is increasingly seen as a half-way house to employment. Students, and those who “assess university success,” become fixated on their perception of the end product, a student seated in an office chair, and forget that education is a process, and one that students ought to continue on their own post-graduation. All sorts of higher order thinking is marginalized when we become exclusively fixated on getting students jobs. It is a prime example of privileging short term priorities over long term ones.
The student-as-customer model, because it is premised upon unsustainable growth and unsecured debt, and government abandonment of its responsibilities, is the human equivalent of strip-mining. It is a wholesale mortgage of the future in exchange for fleeting short terms gains. The problem is not even necessarily in having a student-as-customer model, but in assuming that growth, rather than sustainability and equilibrium, is the only forward motion available to higher education.
We know that within the cliché-driven logic of our culture that if students are customers, then the old main street American, folksy business mantra that “the customer is always right” can’t be too far behind. We see the manifestation of the “always right student-customer” everywhere in academe: in grade inflation (who’s going to pay top dollar for Cs and Ds?), in the resort-ification of campuses (come check out our 90-foot climbing wall and palm-shaded socializing pool); in the hesitance to hold students accountable for their behavior (pick your high-profile college athlete crime example, or laughable university honor code); and in the near-pathological zeal with which higher education seeks to turn elements of the curriculum into swappable commodities (think of states’ efforts to create universally transferrable courses or blocks of “general education” or “liberal studies” credits, essentially an exercise in reduction to the lowest common educational denominator).
On campus, the trite but powerful idea that the customer is never wrong also confuses the mission of our universities. In the language of business, the metaphor enables us to forget what our product is. The university itself becomes the product, rather than the education that the university provides. At one of my sister campuses, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, students have begun to speak out against a lavish new recreation center, arguing that it is an unnecessary cost and a distraction from the university’s primary mission.
Off campus, the same logic of student-as-customer cultivates another set of similarly alarming impulses. The mentality treats academic coursework as standardized parts within a Fordian, standardized academic assembly line. The metaphor drives legislation that treats universities as wayward corporations, rather than as the public infrastructure necessary to sustain a vital democracy.
If there’s an upside to thinking of students as customers, I think it is that the model reminds us that we and our universities are directly accountable to students. Ours is a role of service, direct service to the students we enroll, and indirect service to the society those students will populate and some day run. We are accountable to manage university resources — human, financial, and other — around the primary mission of providing education. We are and ought to be accountable to students and to taxpayers. But the student-as-customer model makes us accountable to the wrong values, to purely financial motives, and at the neglect of the many idealistic, ethical, and democratic motives for expanding access to higher education.
Nate Kreuter is an assistant professor of English at Western Carolina University and a career advice columnist for Inside Higher Ed.
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