Student as customer is failure


While I’ve placed much of the blame for the fraud that is higher education today at the feet of the plundering administrative caste, faculty are hardly blameless. One trend that was just starting when I entered academia, a trend that faculty did not rebuke, was the idea that students should be perceived as customers.

This is core to faculty’s fault for what has happened. Faculty thought the idea was harmless enough, so went along with small administrative plans to bring on students. New students flowed onto campuses, drowning administrations in a sudden deluge of money; this money was used to cement the administrative stranglehold on higher education.

That faculty were ignorant of how easy it would be to find suckers to check off a box and sign up for the student loan scam in no way excuses their responsibility for what happened to higher education. We handed loaded guns to the chimpanzees of administration.

At first glance (which, alas, is all we gave it), “student as customer” sounds harmless enough. What harm could come from advertising a bit for more customers? Perhaps some soul would see a commercial or whatever, decide that higher education was for him, and a great mind is thereby saved from ignorance. Sounds noble enough.

We didn’t accumulate a trillion dollars of student debt overnight, and churn out worthless degrees by the millions in a year…it took time, and the clock started with the very first tick of the “student as customer” paradigm of higher education.

A great article on Inside Higher Ed addresses many of the flaws of “student as customer”. Because the author is faculty, and not administration, the writing is not edubabble boilerplate, and is quite coherent. I have some things to add, however:

“We woo students with slick advertising. Some people feel that, as an industry, higher education over-recruits students…instead of asking the question of whether or not we over-recruit, we simply invest more and more in advertising and public relations endeavors designed to recruit more and more students, perhaps unsustainably so…Our institutions focus on the point of sale, often to the neglect of the delivery of the educational product.”

The above basically hits the nail on the head. One campus I was on had a “recruitment day”, where institutions from around the country set up little tables and passed out slick brochures. What was most striking about these institutions of higher advertisement education was how the posters presented their programs as “convenient” and “quick” and how they promised to help students with financing (about as intellectually honest a way of putting it as describing a guillotine as a way to help with headaches…).

Rows of tables, each with a barker howling about how easy and convenient his institution is. It won’t even cost the customer a thing, just check this box to qualify for federal loans…

The dog that didn’t bark, of course, is how none of the institutions spoke about how challenging their programs were, or how incredibly skilled their graduates were, or, frankly, anything at all about the delivery of the product.

Institutions today are now all about pulling in those students (primary), and retention of those students (secondary). Then comes keeping student complaints down…education doesn’t make the top three goals of institutions any more. That’s why not even 1% of 2-year college work is at the second year of college work. Over 99% of students just swirl around high school level material for a few years while the loan money runs out. That’s not a success rate to be proud of…but that’s the real success rate of higher education.

Suck ‘em in, and nobody cares after that. The article has more to say.

“We extend these student-customers an astounding amount of easy credit…The student-as-customer model allows us to rationalize…student-loan debt that increasingly appear to mortgage many young graduates’ futures. Such logic also allows us to write off as unwise those students who accumulate large debts on seemingly “impractical” degrees…The burden of debt has been shifted onto students in the first place, because state legislatures appear to be less and less inclined to subsidize education…on the very logic that students are “customers.”

I’m not sure I buy that the reason state funding of institutions is dropping fast is because of the “student as customer” idea—the country is running out of money on every level. States are using every rationalization they can to justify doing what reality says they must do.

On the other hand, the author of the article is dead on about the “astounding amount of easy credit.” Institutions that followed the mission of “education and research” instead of “lure suckers in” would not be getting people to destroy themselves with easy credit.

Next, the article says something I fundamentally disagree with. Next time.