Are Students Customers? No

Peter Wood

When one of our members expressed his opinion that students should be treated as customers, we decided to consider both sides of the argument on our website. Here, NAS Executive Director Peter Wood asserts that students should be acknowledged, not as patients, clients, or colleagues - but simply, as students.

I first ran into the claim that colleges and universities should treat students as their customers about fifteen years ago.   I was then assistant provost at Boston University and was confronted with the mother of a student who argued that her son deserved better grades in his courses because he was our customer, and we owed it to him to provide good customer service. I disagreed. I told the mom that her son wasn’t our “customer,” but our student. And what we owed to him as a student was to provide good instruction and an opportunity to learn.                 

Once alerted to the “student as customer” trope, however, I began to notice it frequently. Sometimes it came from dissatisfied students, but more often from tuition-paying parents. But it also cropped up in service areas of the university, such as student life, and as a sales come-on for vendors and consultants, who seemed to grow more and more eager to convince us that, “the students are your customers.” 

 I wasn’t the only one noticing. The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2005 ran an opinion piece by Phillip Shelley, dean of the graduate school at Eastern New Mexico University, who argued that the widespread students-as-customers “ideology may unintentionally compromise the traditional academic expectations of student and faculty responsibility.” Shelley’s alternative, alas, was to argue that students are more “like patients” than customers.   

The earliest reference I’ve found to students-as-customers was a 1989 letter to the Chronicle’s editor from Dan Collinson, the president of a public relations company, who complained that “academe's resistance even to the most basic marketing concepts follows naturally from the inability to perceive students as customers.”   But the trope is probably older. In a 1992 article, Gary Pavela, director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland, saw a link back to the “consumer protection movement of the late 1970s and 1980s.” The rise of online education has also given a boost to the conceit, with a fair number of distance-ed enterprises embracing it as part of their business models. In 2001 the American Federation of Teachers issued a report criticizing online colleges precisely because of their “students as customers” fixation, which the AFT predicted would lead to a curriculum that “will not be coherent, rigorous enough, or broad enough to meet the student's long-term interests."

In any case, the notion that students are customers has been swimming in university waters for a good long time. Is it a constructive way of thinking about the relation between students and college education? I doubt it. 

Students are - to embrace a tautology - students. That’s to say, the relationship between a college and a student is sui generis. It needs to be understood in its own terms, not twisted to fit the needs of a metaphor. It doesn’t need to be modeled on the relationship between merchants and consumers, or any other metaphoric arrangement. (Students are not constructively thought of as “patients” either, despite the urges of residence life and student affairs staff. Nor are students “clients,” “colleagues,” or “partners,” etc.) 

We have a perfectly good idea of what being a “student” entails. It is a hierarchical relationship between someone who seeks knowledge and others who teach knowledge. It requires some degree of humility and forbearance on both sides. Students have to admit that they don’t yet know; teachers have to admit that those who do not-yet-know-but-would-like-to are in a worthy position that deserves its own respect. We have a lot of practice with this, going at least as far back as Plato’s depictions of Socrates. 

Imagine if Glaucon had been infected with the idea of the “student as customer.”

Glaucon: Let me interrupt, Socrates. We’ve been down here at Piraeus most of the night with you gabbling on about an imaginary city. It’s been entertaining up to a point, but I’d like to know the “value-added.” As I see it, Socrates, you are just one more vendor in the agora and I’m a customer with a lot of options. So just a friendly warning. I’d like to see a little more attentiveness to my needs. OK? To start with, I’d like your lecture notes, and please organize them so I can get the main points without getting lost in the details. 

Socrates: What do you mean by “customer,” Glaucon? Am I selling something? 

Glaucon: I don’t want any of your rhetorical tricks. You’ll try to convince me I’m not your customer, but I know I am. Just remember, “the customer is always right.” 

Of course, we do have a pretty good portrait of the student-as-customer in ancient Athens in Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds. Suffice it to say that the idea doesn’t work out very well for Strepsiades either. 

 I am certainly aware of the lure of the contemporary version of this conceit. If only we could hold colleges and universities to a standard of responsibility analogous to the standards that rule farmers that try to sell tainted lettuce or bridge-builders who skimp on rivets. But the problem that colleges and universities often act less responsibly than they once did doesn't magically turn the student into a customer. The students is still a student in the profound sense that he arrives at college ignorant of a fair portion of what the college has to teach, and has to put aside his views and opinions long enough to learn. 

This is not to say that students can't or shouldn't stand in judgment of their teachers and their curriculum. Obviously than can and do. But they do so from a position of weakness, in that the college can always claim to know more and better. The asymmetry of this relationship is essential, even when it is grossly abused. Our focus should be on curbing the abuses, not on creating a new model of student who sees himself foremost as a consumer. The "customer service" model of higher education is an illusory path to real academic reform. What it will bring is what the majority of customers want: not an education but a degree with a maximum amount of extracurricular fun, easy academic standards, and programs that simply mirror popular culture. 

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