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18 August 2016

An Apology for a Consumer Model of Higher Ed—Sorta

Increasingly, administrators in higher education have been entertaining the claim that students should be treated less as students traditionally have and more like “consumers.”* That generally has meant that institutions—including professors—are expected to be more responsive to the demands of students (and their parents). There is a seeming logic to this in that students (and/or their parents) are paying a lot of money in tuition and fees and should have a say in the “product,” that is the social and educational experiences, “sold” by colleges. In our neoliberal world, colleges exist in a very crowded “marketplace”; if one college, for whatever reason, isn’t responding to one “customer’s” “demands,” there are many, many other institutions ready to “supply” a “competing” “product” that can satisfy those “demands.”

Like many in higher education, I am leery of this new consumer model of education. This has caused many of us to resist its associated reforms quite vociferously. I would like to suggest, perhaps, that our opposition has been somewhat misdirected. The problem with the consumer model of higher ed is not so much that education is treated as a commodity that is exchanged for money with consumers; instead, the problem is whom we imagine the consumer to be. There are several beneficiaries of higher education. One is indeed an individual student. I would argue that the larger beneficiary is the public. In the US, states that have higher levels of average education tend to be more economically vibrant; those places benefit on a macro-level. In other words, both highly and less educated people benefit from the “product” that colleges and universities “sell.

In the individual-as-consumer model, individuals are responsible for the cost of their education, logically, since they are the immediate beneficiaries of their education. Any state involvement in this exchange (e.g. state funding or federal student loan subsidization) is seen as meddling with the magic of the markets and, thus, should be limited or even eliminated. In light of this conceptualization, it seems obvious why states have been steadily decreasing their financial support of public universities (even if they retain their right to meddle politically in curriculum, governance, etc.). In the public-as-consumer model, the state bears the bulk of the responsibility for the cost of education, logically, because the public is the immediate beneficiary of education. If states are not highly involved in this exchange, individuals are expected to pay for a product from which others benefit; in other words, the student pays her tuition even though her peers who did not attend college get a benefit from her increased education. In light of this conceptualization, it is only just that the public, represented by the state, pay for public universities—arguably even to the point of making higher education freely available to qualifying individuals.


h/t to Karen Sternheimer for her post that sparked this one.

* - I am (somewhat annoyingly) using scare-quotes throughout to highlight the business/economic/corporate-speak that has crept into the way we talk and think about this topic.

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