In my last post, I noted that pushing back against the businessification of college entailed information, communication, and dedication.
Here I’d like to start the “entailed” by presenting some information we might find helpful in changing the narrative of college as a business.
First, let’s make clear what we’re up against. The paragraph below is from our Middle States report.
Ocean County College takes a customer-driven approach to attracting and keeping new students. We are looking to provide a desirable product (a solid education) in order to attract more customers (students). The benefit of this mindset to the students is obvious: They benefit from a quality product. The fine education and services we provide enrich their learning experience. We are commercial in our thinking and want to grow enrollment while also increasing retention and graduation numbers.
Most faculty cringe at the thought of education as a “product” and treating students as “customers.” At its most basic level, these analogies don’t work
Education as a Product
The notion that education is a commodity — like pork bellies or wheat futures — lies in a confusion between education and the materials used in its generation. Books are a commodity. Classrooms are a commodity. Laptops are a commodity. Even the labor of teaching is a kind of commodity. All of these contribute to learning and education, but they are not education itself. This belief fits nicely into a corporate model where student “learning” is just like any other product, something to be quantified, packaged and then sold at a profit.
The hope of entrepreneurs is that education can be commodified and packaged into an online pellet – much like the dreams in futuristic movies of the 60s and 70s of a meal in a pill. For them, it’s all about monetizing: start with an initial investment, and then sit back and wait for high returns to a small group of investors. This dream is coming to fruition through the efforts of publishers such as Pearson, who offer packages of “modules” designed to “teach” students.
But higher learning is not an mp3 file or a bit or pixel or a “learning module.” Yes, students can register and pay online for a course; yes they can get “content” online, but since a life of the mind is ephemeral, education cannot be transferred and sold to the highest bidder. While the actual desire for education is subject to the laws of supply and demand and income – is there an opening at College X? Can I afford it? – education itself is determined and limited by factors such as individual interests, skills, and temperament: factors which don’t lend themselves to a symbol to be tracked on the Dow ticker. Of course the University of Phoenix’s profits can be tracked and reported in the Wall Street Journal, but again, that’s the business side of education, not education itself.
Student as Customer
Students don’t buy credits; they earn them. Education, as noted above, is not a simple transaction. Learning is a complicated mental and physical process involving information, demonstration of skills, feedback, persistence, assessment, and mental change, most of which is intangible. It cannot be placed in a shopping bag or online cart, no matter how hard businesses try. Yes, it can be paid for, but that doesn’t make students customers. Instead it signals a desire on the part of the student to enter the world of academics, a place where the “customer” is explicitly not always right. Indeed, that realization is an important part of the learning process.
And realistically, do students really want to be treated like a customer by their professor? Do they want a “would you like fries with that?” mentality governing their education? To reduce students to customers is to reduce education to a cash transaction. Should colleges and faculty treat students as dollar signs or as people interested in learning and mental growth? We can point to the recent catastrophe of the financial industry to see how “clients” or “customers” are treated when they are viewed as walking wallets.
The problem with this was recognized decades ago by the famed Brazillian educator Paulo Freire who labeled this the “banking” model of education: students passively purchase a “product” and then consume. Freire noted that this “transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power.” “Control,” “inhibit” . . . these are words that shouldn’t be associated with higher education.
Opinions? Do you think higher education should adopt a business model throughout its functions? Are students customers? Let the comments begin.