Are College Students Customers?

Over the past few decades, the increased cost of higher education and the decreased opportunities for recent graduates have left students uncertain whether their degrees provide acceptable returns for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Public and private colleges have recognized these anxieties and responded with fewer distribution requirements, student evaluations of university programs and resources, grade inflation, pre-professional courses, and other means of attracting and retaining customers who hope their educations will help them transition directly into the workforce. While I agree that universities should hold themselves accountable for the success of their students and applaud the recent shift away from conventional exams and towards applied research projects, we should ask ourselves whether the supplier-client model of modern universities actually fulfills their stated objectives.

I submit that the university has four purposes:

  1. Prepare students for their careers.
  2. Teach students how they can solve complex problems.
  3. Inform students about the world around them.
  4. Help students interact with people from different backgrounds.

The corporate university, where the student becomes the client of the higher education system, addresses only the first of these objectives. If we reduce or remove distribution requirements so students can focus entirely upon their expected careers, for example, they may lose their connections with other disciplines and become detached from their broader social and political responsibilities. Similarly, if colleges use their resources exclusively for professional development, then students may learn the field-specific facts and skills necessary for their work but never hone the analytical and communication skills associated with long-term advancement.

College programs must accommodate the increased specialization of the modern workforce and the unprecedented number of students who choose four-year degrees over vocational schools, but I wonder whether the client-supplier model actually benefits higher education. We should respect student-centered instruction and make sure our courses help students acquire and practice meaningful skills rather than simply memorize facts, but instructors often have the clearest senses of the knowledge and processes valuable for the careers and lives of their students. Holding ourselves accountable for success does not necessarily mean our students should plan their own development, and I believe the relationship between students and college instructors should fit the model of apprentices and experts.

Although experts usually decide what their apprentices must learn before they start their professions, apprentices may freely choose another teacher if their instruction does not prepare them for their work. Experts may cover factual content but generally prefer hands-on practice and conversations over direct instruction and rote memorization (the main drawbacks of “traditional” classes). Most experts not only explain the mechanical details of their work but also show their apprentices how they should approach situations beyond their prior experience, and colleges gather many different experts for the interdisciplinary benefit of their members. The high price of education means universities must accept responsibility for their students. The question becomes how educators and administrators perceive this responsibility. Are we selling our students educational products? Or are we directing and facilitating the growth of our students using our field-specific expertise?

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