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!