College Students as Customers

Recently, education Secretary Betsy DeVos published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “Treating Students as Customers.” Contrary to what the title would suggest, the article is mostly an advertisement for recent changes related to the Dept. of Education’s student loan policies. Those policies are controversial, but that’s not what sparked debate. Instead, a few professors took aim at the general suggestion that their students were customers. Here are a few examples:

Again, based on my read of the article, it does not say “students are customers.” It says students who buy student loans are customers. Student loans are, very clearly, a financial product. So I doubt the scholars above would disagree with the idea that students are customers when they acquire them. I had students loans; I was a customer. And for all we know, the title of the Op-Ed was not provided by Secretary DeVos. This might be the case — when DeVos tweeted the story, she did not use its title.

But I think it is also fair to talk about the more general point because the new Secretary of Education supports “school choice” and is a general proponent of ideas attractive to American conservatives, like minimally regulated markets and “personal responsibility.” The idea that a student is a customer has that kind of intuitive appeal. College students are paying a lot of money to go to college. There are a lot of colleges. They compete for the best students. They ought to get something for their money. None of this is contentious — it even has bipartisan support! It is was the Obama Administration that first started evaluating universities based on the post-graduation earnings of their students.

But there are, naturally, some unsavory downsides to reducing the university-student relationship to a simple transaction. Students, for one thing, probably don’t want to think of their time at college as analogous to a trip to 7-eleven. In some cases, this idea also seems obviously inaccurate. Attending a university makes you part of an institution — connections that some people maintain for life through alumni organizations. So it might be more appropriate to think of students as “members.”

I want to set aside these concerns for a second, though. Instead, I want to argue this way of thinking is sometimes damaging to a university’s core mission in ways that are likely very unappealing to conservatives who want to think of students as customers. That’s because it can destroy competition in the classroom, and make universities compete on dimensions that are probably irrelevant to education. I’ll make this point with two examples.

The first is campus beautification. If you have ever toured an American university as a prospective student or parent, you will have likely noticed that many of the most successful have some common physical features. These include nice looking buildings, well-kept flower beds, seasonally laid sod, trimmed oaks, and walkable amenities vaguely reminiscent of country clubs. This is no accident, and of course, universities spend tens of thousands of dollars a year maintaining the physical beauty of their campus. I would provide some specific anecdotes, but as an aspiring college professor, I have just enough sense to not single any university out.

The reason for this outsized investment in appearances is not hard to understand. Prospective students and faculty spend only hours at an institution. They don’t perform an in-depth audit of university finances or strategic practices. But if the university has the resources to spend on things extraneous to education, then they’ve got to be in good shape, haven’t they? So a pretty campus is a signal —  it might not even be a bad one.

But the idea that universities compete on the dimension of aesthetic beauty is at odds with the competition DeVos and others have in mind. Here, student customers might make college selections based on physical beauty — something that is probably only loosely related to the quality of education. So the market might reward the brainless peacock with the best feathers. Ironically, this also encourages schools to invest in the kinds of things that conservatives bash universities for having — like rockwalls and lazy rivers.

A second example is grade inflation. For those unfamiliar, the mean GPA of college students was around 2.8 in early 1980s, but today it is around 3.2. If you assume that generations of students are not becoming smarter over time (that’s a safe bet, since educational opportunities have expanded over that period so that lower achieving students are more likely to go to college), then the trend suggests universities give away high grades too easily.

There is a lot of research on this, and many have strong opinions. But one explanation (which does not exclude others) is the student-customer model. If you view the relationship between student and professor as purely transactional, then it is not difficult to jump to the idea that students are entitled to good grades. They pay a lot of money to be there. Professors have to decide their standards are worth enforcing over and above that mindset. It’s easy to do the opposite — caving to the grade-grubbing, the parent complaints (yes, this happens at the university-level), and the uniform demands for lax evaluation. No course evaluation ever read “the professor graded too easily and I think I deserved a C-minus.” Intense competition for grades might even deter matriculation.

Here again, grade inflation clearly cuts against true competition. It undermines the idea that universities ought to be preparing students to compete in the real world. And for conservatives, the idea that everyone could get an A in a class should be moderately offensive as it is the educational equivalent of (straw-man) socialism. But it is easy to fall into that trap when you consider students to be customers.

This does not mean treating students like customers is never right. Universities engage in obvious transactions — like providing room, board, and financial services. But the point is, reducing students to customers can actually undermine principles that free market-oriented conservatives claim to hold. Universities are successful precisely because they treat students better than businesses often treat customers. (I doubt I need to provide examples of for-profit organizations treating customers badly, but just in case: Volkswagen and Enron.) That’s another way of saying they don’t treat students like customers. Students might be trustees of a university’s brand. Or they might be members of a community — who are granted access but must have the initiative required to promote personal growth. In any case, I doubt that a student who views their time at college as purely transactional will get much in return, just as I doubt universities and educators who take that idea to its logical conclusion will succeed in educating young adults.


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