Are Students Customers? Yes

Ed Cutting

When one of our members, expressed his sentiment that students should be treated as customers, we decided to consider both sides of the argument on our website. Here, Ed Cutting presents his case for letting the market do the work.

Soviet inefficiency and the subsequent implosion of the planned economy served to demonstrate the superiority of the free market’s invisible hand. As Adam Smith wrote, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.” Why then is there such revulsion to applying the free market, that is, the model of student-as-customer, to higher education? 

Three criticisms are usually presented, that institutions will become diploma mills where academic credentials often are little more than financial receipts, that academic rigor will degrade into a bacchanal orgy of pop culture and carnal activities, and that vocational training will largely supplant true education. Like, um, this hasn’t happened already?                  

Vocationalism has always been at the root of American higher education. Harvard and Yale were established as vocational institutes dedicated to the training of ministers. The Puritan (Congregational) Church was the established religion in Massachusetts and Connecticut well into the 19th Century, municipalities were required by law to hire trained ministers, and these institutions served to train those entering that vocation. 

The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 was likewise of strong vocational bent. It established colleges designed to train farmers, engineers and junior military officers (the latter in great need due to Civil War losses). Like the Harvard and Yale of two centuries earlier, these new colleges were established with a strong vocational bent, and there was even a belief in some quarters that the Morrill Act prohibited the teaching of the liberal arts at Land Grant Colleges.

A century later the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights had a clear vocational intent. Congress sought to avoid a repeat of the 1932 bonus riots and there was a very real fear that large numbers of unemployed veterans could push the postwar economy into an even worse depression. The veterans themselves sought an education as a means toward the future economic security of a good job. 

Thus on the three occasions when bare naked vocationalism truly ruled higher education, things arguably were better than they are now. The GIs were in bed at 9 PM each night, and the academic rigor of that era hasn’t been seen since. Vocationalism works; to the extent that the arts and humanities are relevant to modern society, knowledge of them is a marketable skill that graduates will be able to employ to their personal financial gain.

Letting the inmates run the asylum, otherwise known as letting the students determine what they are taught, is already the norm. The era of Newman’s universal knowledge is far gone; today’s students self-select into various majors and programs. The core curriculum has become diversity and social justice requirements, and a common cannon (other than political correctness) no longer exists. Students thus endure this indoctrination as a necessary prerequisite to obtaining their job-related skills and credentials, learning little in the process.

The untold scandal is not the extent to which accelerated degree programs are diploma mills but that purchasers of such credentials often know more than those who have spent years in our traditional academies. I encourage all to read the Intercollegiate Studies Institute report that found that college graduates often know less after four years of college. If we aren’t teaching the arts and humanities now, how much less could we not teach them under a customer-service approach?

Imagine, for example, a free market approach to the practice of law. The bar exam exists as a basic level of competency and why should attendance at an approved law school be a prerequisite to demonstrate that you either know the law or not? Conversely, if law school is the only way to learn the law, why do so many graduates of increasingly expensive law schools fail the exam with such frequency? Lawyers are expensive because law school is expensive, and the current arrangement does little more than ensure the financial success of the law school industry.

Over time the collective self-interest of the customers (the students) would serve to create the most efficient (and affordable) means to convey that knowledge needed to practice law. Likewise for the other professions, approaches along these lines are already being introduced into the certification of K-12 teachers. And the bottom will fall out of the entire university industry when (not if) corporate education programs such as McDonalds Hamburger U fully evolve into legitimate alternatives to college and are considered such by employers.

The fact that a UMass Vice-Chancellor felt comfortable stating that we really don’t care what the students think serves to explain why UMass Amherst has inexorably been under martial law in response to student rioting. Any business that does not enjoy a monopoly cares very much what its customers think; while professionals must maintain standards, they too are concerned about customer satisfaction.

The student of today is a customer, borrowing considerable sums of money toward potential future gain. Given free choice, a few will opt for pop culture, politicized drivel and bacchanal entertainment. And like those who used their homes as ATM machines over the past decade, such people will serve as very visible examples of making bad decisions. When the curriculum becomes of value to the student (and to his employer), when students start knowing more coming out of the university than they knew going into it, the current disputes over grades will evolve into disputes over curriculum deficiencies.

The question thus is not, “What will become of the arts and humanities?” I argue instead that the question should be, “What is the value of teaching the arts and humanities, the value of a liberal education in general?” If our profession is to survive, we need to start answering that question, along with ensuring that what is taught truly are arts and humanities and not the politicized drivel so common today. Like the railroad of a half century ago, the once enjoyed natural monopoly has been eliminated; the university will either meet the needs of its customers or, like the railroads, lose its customers to newer technologies.

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