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Students as Consumers


In the comments in the technological futurism/higher ed thread below, the “student as consumer model” is being debated. Marc Murc is fine with it:

College is fucking expensive, and as an adult student, the sole reason I went back is that I expect a return on my investment. I expect value for my money. And hey, the government considers college educations to be so valuable that they pay for lots of people to get’em.

If I’m not a consumer, what the hell am I?

I think this conversation often plays out in a pretty unproductive way. Many faculty (myself included) are tempted to respond by highlighting the differences between the academy and the marketplace, and lamenting the the logic of the marketplace encroaching in all areas of life. (Advanced versions of this line of thought might mention the Habermasian distinction between systems and lifeworld). I don’t entirely disagree with this, but I certainly don’t blame students for finding it maddening.

There is a sense, obviously, in which students are analogous to consumers, and there’s no point in denying that. The enrollment management office is engaged in a form of sales, and the faculty are part of the overall package that’s being sold. There is no denying they are purchasing something, and we’ve got an obligation to provide quality instruction in return. I think this needs to be acknowledged in order to narrow in on what’s wrong with the ‘consumer model’ as it’s frequently sold to many faculty, in practical rather than theoretical terms.

The problem with the consumer model arises when the “customer is always right” mentality (they want their widgets purple! With salsa dispensers!) is pursued. One reason it doesn’t work is that the outcomes we’re pursuing often make it difficult to identify when the student/consumer should be listened to. To take an example, I have a writing assignment in a course I regularly teach that students routinely and strenuously dislike (in ways that go beyond the generic complaint of “too hard/too much work”); they complain about it when it’s assigned and as they’re working on it. I can see its pedagogical value, because I’ve used it several times and know it generally works, so it stick with it. Many students (but by no means all) come to recognize the value of the assignment by the end of the term. There are definitely versions of the consumer model floating around that suggest we gather and respond to student feedback mid-semester. Mid-semester feedback can be valuable, but not indiscriminately so.

To take another example, in accordance with the consumer model we recently instituted an exit survey of graduating majors. The two most robust findings from the survey about classroom instruction were: 1. Students overwhelming said they wanted more instruction and training in public speaking, and 2. They overwhelmingly said that the least valuable part of the classroom experience is listening to other students speak. The consumer model offers little guidance here. I happen to agree on #1, but it can’t be pursued if we’re using the consumer model in real time and responding to #2.

These examples raise a question: if we are to treat the student as a consumer, the question is when do we treat the student as a consumer. At the beginning of the semester? Mid-semester? End of the term? At graduation? (The metaphor as applied to retail would suggest ‘whenever they pipe up and complain’ is the correct time). Taking ‘consumer feedback’ at each moment potentially works against the others. The model imported from retail would suggest we do what we can to keep our customers happy, comfortable and satisfied at every point in time.  Indeed, in many consumer contexts, this is considerably more important than making sure consumers get the best possible product.

To seek out and judiciously use student feedback to improve teaching and instruction is potentially valuable, and there are other ways in which the model might be helpful as well. But the way it’s being sold to–and pushed on–classroom instructors in many cases would have us chasing our tails in obviously unproductive ways, that are of no benefit to students in the long run, and make little pedagogical sense. Students are undeniably consumers in some real sense of the term, but in fundamentally different ways than we normally think of the term. The question is not whether the metaphor is ‘correct’ in some sense, but to what use the metaphor is put.  It can potentially be put to good use, but often isn’t.

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