Thursday, September 24, 2009

Give the students what they pay for: the "consumer model" of education

There's a meme afoot that says we should bemoan what's called the "consumer model" of education. As I understand it, this "model," as its critics view it, is not really a "model" at all, but refers to the growing trend of treating a college or university education as something that is "purchased." A student spends time and money until he or she has bought enough credit hours and then gets a degree. Among the negative effects that I've heard attributed to this trend are the following:
  1. It encourages students to see their education as merely another commodity.
  2. It emphasizes credentialing at the expense of a "true" education. In other words, students care only about passing the class and getting a high grade and not about the pursuit of knowledge or skills.
At first glance, these two negative effects might seem to be redundant. Doesn't treating education as a "commodity" necessarily imply the overemphasis on education? I argue that it does not, and that we should embrace the "consumer model" of education.

First, a definition. By "commodity," I mean something that is purchased. I don't not mean what most, whether or not they realize it in these precise words, mean: "an undifferentiated bulk good."

Second, a caveat. I do not wish to imply that I believe it to be a good thing for students to focus myopically on merely purchasing credits.

Here is how I believe the consumer model should be embraced. Students are paying money, usually big money, to take classes. Even if they receive grants or scholarships, they are foregoing time they might have spent on working and saving money. (In a recession-economy like ours, maybe that's less of an opportunity foregone; still, it is a consideration.) Students are in a very real sense already encouraged, even required, to "purchase" credits to gain credentials. We should recognize that fact. I would go further than merely "recognizing" it: I would offer students a guaranteed "C" if they do a prescribed minimum amount of work, provided they don't plagiarize, cheat, etc. (I have never tried this out because such experimentation is probably ill-advised for a TA or an adjunct who doesn't, or even for a professor who doesn't have tenure.) The "minimum C" would have the following good effects:
  1. It might actually reduce grade inflation because it would revalue B's and A's as something for which extra work will be done. (I don't believe the reduction of grade inflation will necessarily result, but it is a probable outcome.)
  2. It gives students credential-minded students a sound footing: you will get your credit, but if you want a higher grade, you will have to take the lessons seriously.
In keeping with takings "the lessons seriously," teachers should emphasize that what is being purchased is not primarily a set of credit hours. What is being purchased--the "commodity" qua differentiated good--are, primarily, lessons. When one takes a history class, one is in a sense purchasing lessons in history and (I argue) lessons in writing. When one is taking a math class, one is taking lessons in math and logic.

Other than the "minimum C" idea, I don't know how to implement any of this at the policy level (i.e., university-wide or classroom-level policy levels). But I do suggest that if there is a way to encourage students to embrace the "consumer model" on the level of "purchasing lessons" over "purchasing credits," it should be explored.

But in addition to "policies" that might be adopted, I think instructors should embrace the "consumer model" in one very important respect. They should realize that the students, in a very real sense, write their paychecks.

Maybe it's not obviously so. At public universities the instructor is usually paid by the state, via the university. In some heavily subsidized community college systems (and other public university systems), a large number of students might receive aid either directly--e.g., through government grants--or indirectly, through funding of the schools with tax money or through legislatively imposed tuition caps. Universities, public or private, often enjoy private endowments that suppposedly go to meet university expenses and that, probably, free up money to pay instructors.

Still, the instructors would not have a job without the students. At least, they wouldn't have a job as instructors. They might, for example, have jobs as researchers or administrators, but not as instructors (and even administrators depend on the students).

To my mind, this is a very important thing to keep in mind. To look at students as customers whom the instructors are serving. This means giving the students the lessons they are paying for, just like a customer service rep in a private business needs to give customers what they are paying for. Conscientiously adopting this mindset would have the following good effects:
  1. It would encourage instructors to honor their office hours and turn back papers, etc., on time.
  2. It would encourage instructors to focus on teaching the nuts and bolts of their subject matter without pontificating on issues only tangentially (if at all) related to the course material.
  3. It would, in short, encourage instructors to respect their students.
Obviously, the usefulness of embracing the "consumer model" breaks down at certain points. It should not extend, for example, to letters of recommendation: a student must earn a recommendation in a way that's not 100% consistent with looking at the classroom as a "commodity," even under my definition of commodity. Also, there's an element of education that is done for the joy of it--for intellectual stimulation--that cannot be addressed by the consumer model.

But I can't help wondering if it is not necessarily for the better to adopt a consumer model. At one university where I was a TA, remember overhearing a conversation that an undergraduate had about one of her professors. (She was talking loudly on a cell phone and it was hard not to drop eaves listening to her.) She was complaining about something the professor did or said, and she added "some people think that just because they have a PHD they can treat students like sh--." (This is not an exact quotation, but only the gist of what I remember.) I don't know much about this student's situation, and maybe her complaints about this particular professor (whose name I never found out) were off-base.

But that last complaint resonated with me. Some people who are hired to teach sometimes don't treat students well: they don't keep office hours, they cancel classes (or make their TA's teach the canceled classes on short notice), they are difficult to reach outside of their office hours. (One professor informed a graduate student friend of mine who was trying to study for PHD exams that she (the professor) simply "didn't come to campus" on certain days and therefore couldn't meet with my friend who really needed help.) There are a lot of causes behind this, one of which is the "adjunctization" of college teaching that makes it hard for adjuncts to be available, and research universities in practice prioritize research and publication over teaching. These problems by themselves are not likely to be solved completely by embracing the "consumer model" of education, but the model may help to reorient a given university's treatment of students.

As instructors, we need to treat students better. And a good way toward this end is to realize that their jobs depend on having students.

(I might add that I am here talking only of college-level education. I have never taught high school or lower, and therefore don't know the challenges of teaching at those levels. My prescriptions might or might not be relevant there. But if they are, I am too poorly qualified to speak on teaching at those levels.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree that teachers are there to serve students. Too many professors want to blame students for not exhibiting certain behaviors, but I believe that the instructor sets the tone of the class. If they have high expectations, students will not let them down. Also, although I do not think that teachers necessarily have to "entertain," it is there job to make class stimulating. I really liked this entry! You make a very compelling argument.