I was struck and conflicted by an insightful article by Larry Hubbell, Director of the Institute of Public Service at Seattle University, in the current edition of Academic Questions, entitled “Students Aren’t Consumers”. In it, he makes some very penetrating points that seem to be of the “wedge” variety in the ongoing discussion on the transformation of higher education mission and delivery.
Basically, he contends that, although in many areas of the economy higher standards work to improve sales, in academia, it’s the reverse, and therefore, the student as consumer has become part of academic decline. He then proceeds to outline the basis for this argument by citing the undermining trends in grade inflation, student evaluations of faculty, the evolution of the demands made on faculty for much more detailed course syllabi into something of the sort of a contract, and the significant increase in student demand for study guides that seem to be analogous to the “teach to the test” phenomenon in the high schools.
He then closes with this:
“As students are presented with more choices throughout their young lives, it is inevitable that colleges and universities will embrace the practices of the private sector as they vie for their education dollars. The college experience should be focused on the pursuit of learning, not customer satisfaction. That pursuit is hindered when professors become purveyors and the students become buyers. Now that unabashed consumerism has infiltrated the college experience—from extravagant dining options to elaborate dormitory living—it may seem inevitable that classrooms across campus will subscribe to the pervasive customer consciousness. Nevertheless, those loyal to the cause of learning must resist that pull.”
For the past 20 years since I have been heavily involved in education—as a business leader, as a university trustee, as an elementary and secondary education reformer—I have constantly preached the notion of students as customers much in the sense of the business model, while preserving a reverence for the student in the pursuit of learning and self fulfillment. So I have a lot of sympathy for Hubbell’s point of view here, but I am conflicted by my commitment to an education system that must be accountable for student achievement that delivers responsible and contributing as well as economically productive citizens.
Everything we know about where the higher education mission is headed today tells me that the notion of the student as a customer is becoming dominant in this trade off and a big part of me is pained by the fact that, for example, the humanities and liberal arts are the losers, and with them, the pursuit of learning for its sake. But it seems impossible to head off this overwhelming demand for measurable value-added in the credential and the almost totally consumer-driven approach to postsecondary study, with its Massive Open Online Courses, competency-based credit, the $10,000 BA, etc. Can we have it both ways? Is this simply the C. P. Snow conflict of the two cultures updated to the 21st century? The resolution of this issue may very well be the leading problem for higher education leadership in this century.