Education: Where the “Customer” is the “Product”

Two quotes from self-proclaimed education “reformers”:

Margaret Spellings (former Bush administration Secretary of Education, and president-elect of the University of North Carolina) explaining her work with for-profit colleges: “The reason I did it was because I learned a lot about how we can serve our students and think of them as customers in providing a product in convenient ways for them.”

Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson: “I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer.  What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation. American schools,” Tillerson added, “have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future. Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings. So it’s really serious. It’s tragic. But that’s where we find ourselves today.”

The amazing American student: simultaneously a “customer” and a “product,” if, alas, a highly “defective” one.

Beginning in 2012 Spellings served on the board of the Apollo Group, the parent company of for-profit chain University of Phoenix, now under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, in part for its aggressive recruiting of military veterans. Its online program has a graduation rate of just 7.3 percent, and the student loan default rate is up 5 percent from the national average.  Spellings also chaired the board of the Ceannate Corporation, a student loan collection agency. So much for caring about “customers.”

Indeed, as Rebecca Schuman explained last May, “college students are not customers. That analogy needs to die. It needs to be drowned in the world’s largest bathtub. It needs a George R.R. Martin-esque bloodbath of a demise” because, among other things, “most students don’t actually view themselves as customers, because they know how education works and actually want to get one.”  Schuman continues:

If a university is a customer-service-oriented business—like, say, a restaurant—this means that the customer’s pleasurable experience (and thus continuing patronage) is the sole aim of the university. It does not matter, then, how much or how little the customer learns about a given area of study, because she is “always right.”

When, for example, a diner at a restaurant pairs tilapia with zinfandel, and then raises a holy fit about how disgusting her tilapia tastes, the manager has little choice but to restrain the irate sommelier and comp the food, even though it is the customer’s fault the food was “bad.” The staff would not dare suggest the customer try a different wine, because that rude attitude would be yet more fodder for a scathing Yelp review; e.g.,  “If I could give this place negative stars, I would!”

Imagine how the Yelp template would work in college. Despite the “sommelier”—in this case the professor—strongly recommending that the “customer” purchase the Chem 101 textbook for Chem 101, the customer, being always right and in possession of the money, decides instead to purchase the textbook for Abnormal Psych 500 because it “looks better.” Then, when it’s time for midterms (our customer has not attended a single lecture—she’s paid her money, after all!), our customer notices that none of the exam questions match anything she’s read. Since she’s paid many thousands of dollars for this course, she is, as the customer, fully entitled to both an A and a full refund. And if her professor, TA, adviser, the registrar, and the provost don’t issue her a profuse apology, it’s zero stars. Fire everyone!

Wait, what did you say? This scenario is absurd, you say? It is, and it has no bearing on reality—not even the most entitled student would act this way, and nobody would feel the need to kowtow to her if she did, precisely because students aren’t customers.

As for Tillerson and his arrogant claim that the “customers” are actually a “product,” self-proclaimed “grumpy old teacher” Peter Greene responds well on his Curmudgucation blog: “The fact that anybody can shamelessly express such an opinion out loud, without recognizing that it is ethically dense and morally bankrupt, a view of both human beings and an entire country that is about as odious and indefensible as anything spit out by a Ted Bundy or an Eric Harris.”  Greene adds: “Students are not a product. Corporations are not ‘customers,’ and the public institutions of our nation do not exist to serve the needs of those corporations. The measure of public education is not how well it produces drones that serve the needs of corporations, not how ‘interested’ corporations are in the meat widgets that pop out of a public education assembly line.”

Whether it is the student or the potential employer of that student who is the university’s “customer,” in either scenario the university becomes simply a business. And, as Schuman writes, “A business’s only goal is to succeed, as in make the largest profit possible, which it usually does by purveying the cheapest product it can at the highest price customers will pay. In this model, tuition should be as high as the school can get away with, and all courses should cater purely to the tastes of the lowest common denominator of the customer base.”  If that customer base is comprised of students themselves, then the school will move in one direction — toward offering courses and assessing accomplishment in ways most favorable to student opinion.  If, however, other businesses comprise the customer base then the school might act quite differently.  In neither case, however, would the school be acting as, well, a SCHOOL!  Where the product is LEARNING!

So, let’s simply let students be students and forget these extraordinarily dumb and highly dangerous business analogies once and for all, please!

7 thoughts on “Education: Where the “Customer” is the “Product”

  1. Pingback: What I’m reading 31 Dec 2015 through 5 Jan 2016 | Morgan's Log

  2. In the US and perhaps globally, the governments that fund public institutions have certain expectations, that the money they invest, that of the taxpayer, are well spent. In most cases, they expect students that can now contribute to the economy. The public universities have “taken the king’s shilling” and thus have committed to “turning out a product”, a job-ready graduate. Students enter the post secondary institution for many reasons but when they have to pay back the money that they borrowed, they too have such expectations.

    This burden does not rest so heavily on the private, medallion, institutions many of whose students may not have the fiscal sword hanging over them. And the endowments of these institutions are given with different expectations than funds from the tax paying public.

    The public post secondary institutions have also responded by increasing the number of non-tenure track faculty specifically to provide instruction. This, again, is symptomatic of the mindset resulting from accepting funding from the public whose expectations that these are “production workers”, though many have their scholarly credentials from a research institution. Never–the-less many still harbor the hope that they will be granted the path to the traditional scholarly tenure track. Again, the medallions exist with a far more traditional academic set of expectations.

    The same sentiments and expectations start with Preschool through the secondary system where the public, in the past, has expected that their students could enter society as both work capable and educated to participate in civic life. The education system has pushed students through this system saying that it is now the problem at the next, currently, post secondary level. In other words, the post secondary institutions have not only received, but willfully accepted that function when, in fact, post secondary faculty are subject specialists without the benefit of the education that primary and secondary teachers are supposed to have.

    The faculty expect to transmit advanced knowledge with the unarticulated expectations that the students will accept this role as when going to a physician. Interestingly, medical practice is now moving toward a patient/doctor collaborative program of treatment where the patient participates in decisions more pro-actively. Academia, is now pressed with similar student expectations. And the restaurant needs to suggest that the choice of wine be a joint decision, possibly.

    Post secondary institutions have been hoisted by their own petard. They want the funding to go to the institutions but slipped over the transom unconditionally. It’s problematic P->16

    • In the 1950s, the Chairman of General Motors famously opined that “what’s good for General Motors is good for the U.S.A,” thereby confounding the private interest of his company with the broader public interest. No one denies that colleges and universities — and not only public ones — must be accountable to the public. As the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure declared: a university’s “trustees are trustees for the public. In the case of our state universities this is self-evident. In the case of most of our privately endowed institutions, the situation is really not different. They cannot be permitted to assume the proprietary attitude and privilege, if they are appealing to the general public for support.”

      The problem with both the “consumer” model and the “product” model is that they in fact leave out the general public. Colleges and universities exist to serve the public interest and not the private interests of their students alone or, certainly, not the private interest of business owners seeking access to cheap labor trained on the public dime, as Tillerson so brazenly demands.

  3. Good day Hank

    As Humpty Dumpty says: ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

    Now we need to determine what is in the public’s interest. And then who is the adjudicator in this decision. Supposedly the elected officials represent the voice of their constituents, the tax payers. Now that starts a long discussion as to whose money and vote rules. That also raises the issue that many students in the universities are tax paying adults or are indirectly in that their funds are actually from and owed to government.

    I don’t think that since universities were founded around 1000 that they have ever been free from such outside influences whether government or, often religious enterprises. The voices of the academics have been listened to but their decisions, especially in public institutions, outside of content expertise has been and increasingly influenced by those providing the funds. It’s even more problematic now that highly trained content specialists are now adjuncts and part time providers of courses that students take to obtain a degree.

    As Shakespeare has said about dreaming, its a fate devoutly to be wished. As we watch tenure being jeopardized as seen at Madison and elsewhere. As unions of faculty are facing the same issues, even privilege and hard fought benefits are questioned. As more administrators are mandated to comply with federal regulations, the idea that the faculty are the determining agents and the students have no say but to accept the wisdom of an alma mater seems delusional.

    Tracking what is happening globally, not just in the US and looking at the number of measures that compare student competencies- where competencies are now becoming the currency of choice, It is becoming clear that there is a concern in all countries about “job” readiness where active citizen participation in civic life has seen a significant shift in importance as opposed to the ability to gain sufficient skills to enter the economic life.

    Though not satisfactory nor totally appropriate, taken out of context, perhaps Wordsworth might bring some solace:

    “Though nothing can bring back the hour. Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower; We will grieve not, rather find. Strength in what remains behind;

    • good day Michael

      Interesting thought; but:
      a) it does not seem to make Spelling’s comments more palatable, and
      b) it would seem to make Reichman’s comments even less defensible

      It reminds one of the Straw Man in the Wizard of Oz with his “degree” in “Thinkology”?! What indeed does this piece of vellum/sheepskin or other material signify? And there is increasing concern that the resource investment by all may, indeed, be open to question or discussion beyond the undergraduate program.

  4. Pingback: Gender Bias and Student Evaluations of Teaching | The Academe Blog

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