Let’s Move to Student “Doing” Instead of “Buying”

At the end of an editorial in The New York Times on the Department of Education’s decision to forgive student loans owed to Corinthian Colleges, the Editorial Board wrote:

Critics are already casting this as a windfall for former students. But it is important to remember that this loan money flowed to fraudulent institutions that fleeced people and gave them nothing in return. Congress needs to tighten the standards against which these schools are judged and the rules under which they operate.

Those standards and rules need to include a retreat from the commercialization and corporatization of higher education that has been the hallmark of the past quarter-century of college and university operations. Students were lured to Corinthian (and continue to be lured by its like) by the idea that education is something one can buy. Student loans become an investment against returns in the future. Unfortunately for the students scammed (but fortunately for education), colleges don’t work that way: learning isn’t conferred on one for payment. Yet, as Hunter Rawlings, writing in the Washington Post states, “most public discussion of higher ed today pretends that students simply receive their education from colleges the way a person walks out of Best Buy with a television.”

Though nonsense, that’s how our governments—and governing bodies of colleges and universities—have been seeing higher education for quite some time, now. The “student as consumer” idea has been dominate since the 1970s even though it has never made much sense:

The results of this kind of thinking are pernicious. Governors and legislators, as well as the media, treat colleges as purveyors of goods, students as consumers and degrees as products. Students get the message. If colleges are responsible for outcomes, then students can feel entitled to classes that do not push them too hard, to high grades and to material that does not challenge their assumptions or make them uncomfortable.

So writes Rawlings, and correctly so. What he says isn’t even new, having been written and spoken over and over again for decades, though to no effect. Rawlings goes on, reiterating what should be the obvious:

So let’s acknowledge that college is not a commodity. It’s a challenging engagement in which both parties have to take an active and risk-taking role if its potential value is to be realized. Professors need to inspire, to prod, to irritate, to create engaging environments that enable learning to take place that can’t happen simply from reading books or watching films or surfing the Web. Good teachers “supply oxygen” to their classrooms, in the words of former Emory University president Bill Chace; they do not merely supply answers or facts. And good colleges provide lots of help to students who face challenges completing their degrees in a reasonable amount of time.

But students need to make a similar commitment to breathe it in and be enlivened by it. They owe this not only to their teachers but also to their parents and themselves. After all, the decision to go to college is a decision to make an investment in their future, an investment of time and money. And for many, a college education is expensive. Students have to play a major role in making sure it’s money well spent.

Even Rawlings, though, falls into the rhetorical frame of those who make education a commodity, calling it an “investment” and then reverting to that bankrupt model for judging it (“money well spent”).

That even one making the point that our vision of college is way off track falls into defining it in the very terms he wants us to avoid shows just how hard it is going to be to return “college” to something other than a monetary investment. As long as we continue to speak of higher education in terms reminiscent of the stock market or of trading of any sort, situations such as the Corinthian one are going to continue to appear.

As Rawlings says, college is something students do, not something they buy. Yes, there are expenses involved, but these are not the yardsticks by which the successes of education should be measured. Rawlings sums it up:

The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum. I know this because I have seen excellent students get great educations at average colleges, and unmotivated students get poor educations at excellent colleges.

This is where the emphasis should remain, on student work, and not on money paid.

Were we to place it there, we might be able to move to a system where free higher education is made available to all. Doing so would be in the best interest of all of us—but it can never happen while we see higher education as something that can be bought or sold.



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3 thoughts on “Let’s Move to Student “Doing” Instead of “Buying”

  1. As Marshall Sahlins has pointed out, the language of the market has come to dominate almost all discourse in countries with market economies. Certainly this has been the case in higher education in the United States. It seems as though it is almost impossible to resist. The teacher-student relationship is potentially one of the few non-market relationships left. But that is hard to express persuasively in many professional contexts.

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