Consumers of Education

by Kimberlyn Austin

At the start of my junior year in high school, letters, pamphlets, and brochures from prospective colleges flooded my mailbox.  This paraphernalia was strategically designed by each respective admissions office to entice me to, at the very least, take a tour of their school and then hopefully apply. Each of the well-designed leaflets, according to author Mark Edmundson of “On the uses of a Liberal Education”, shows pictures of “well-appointed dorm rooms, elaborate phys-ed facilities, fine dining rooms and expertly-kept sports fields” (Edmundson 6). These photographs feature the most picturesque places on campus or the most up-to-date research facilities.  The informational brochures are the colleges’ use of subliminal messaging to lure in their prospective students. During this phase a shift from “prospective student” to “potential consumer” occurs. Colleges in America are transitioning to a more “consumer mentality” when conjecturing ways to increase their enrollment numbers, and this new mentality negatively impacts the quality of education that students receive. Consumerism will cause the demise of a student’s academic experience because most students are too unprepared and inexperienced to properly manage the unexpected power a “consumer” of education truly holds.

Mockingly referred to as the “shopping period” by professors and faculty, the first couple weeks of every semester is the time when students get to try out their new classes before deciding if they want to remain in the class for the semester, drop the course, or if it appears too difficult, declare the course “Pass/Fail.” This practice, according to Edmundson, “speaks volumes to the consumer mentality that is now in play” (Edmundson 8). Edmundson reasons that, because students and parents have technically “bought and paid for” the courses in which they are enrolled, the producer must allow the students to do “pretty much what they please” with them (Edmundson 8). In order to keep the customer happy the administration of the college is forced into allowing students to have sole control over their course registration decisions. However, as Roy Schwartzman, author of the academic article “Are Students Consumers? The Metaphoric Mismatch Between Management and Education” points out, “placing education on the level of a commercial transaction compromises the goals of education.” Consumerism therefore directly perpetuates the decline in a student’s academic success in college.

Consumers, as a certain demographic, have both needs and wants when it comes to the products they desire.  Consumers must learn to balance their needs and wants, while also differentiating between pleasure and necessity. However, “because their judgment may not have yet matured,” some college students are not challenging themselves with their choice of classes (Schwartzman 220).  These students “lack the expertise to judge exactly what constitutes quality in a particular subject” and are mostly concerned with getting a good grade to pass the course, to ultimately boost their grade point average (Schwartzman 220). The “insufficient frames of reference” upon which students base their educational decisions, and thus plans for the future, will result in the downfall of their academic experience in college (Schwartzman 221). As a freshman at Boston College, I was at a loss for determining which science courses were most recommended for freshmen that have the goal of attending medical school. If not for the guidance of a knowledgeable academic advisor I most certainly would have been uninformed about Pre-med requirements, and could have potentially not registered for an essential course, such as General Chemistry. The absence of a core science class could have jeopardized my sequence of classes for the next four years, and possibly delay medical school plans.

By giving into the whims and desires of students the administration is ensuring that the students not only have more power over them, but also “more power over their professors” (Edmundson 8). Professors are forced to comply with the demands of the “present clientele,” and, currently, this clientele is requesting less face-to-face “Socratic” interactions between professors and students (Edmondson 9). A frequent situation occurring at many liberal arts colleges involves students presenting claims to their deans that they have been “offended” by their professors’ controversial or seemingly aggressive comments in class (Edmundson, 9). Even if the professor’s clear intent is to simply challenge the students, today most young people would rather sit in a large hall and be lectured to, than engage in stimulating conversation. These students would rather remain uninvolved with the assigned material for fear of appearing over-zealous to their classmates, thus they choose to take a sideline approach to their education.

The pressure to uphold the “consumer” mentality is causing professors to gradually shifting more and more towards an aloof style of teaching.  Unfortunately this pedagogical shift is at the expense of student education. It is much more riveting and beneficial for a student to be challenged and questioned in an intense discussion with their professor, than for the teacher to “hold back their sometimes fascinating or thought-provoking opinions” in fear of retribution (Edmundson 9).  Schwartzman agrees, “Students deserve more from educators than instant gratification”, and their intellect should be routinely pushed to the brink in order to develop more complex thinking and reasoning patterns (Schwartzman 222). In my large lecture classes I sometimes find myself wanting to engage directly with the professor.  I want to challenge their statements openly and have them debate against mine.  This type of intellectual exchange enables students to become more knowledgeable about both sides of an argument, and form a more accurate, factually based opinion.  I sincerely miss the intimate interactions I had with the teachers from my high school. Each teacher knew me on a personal level. Every teacher was fully aware if I temporarily slipped into a “comfort zone” and disengaged from the class. They were right there to reel me back in and encourage me to continue working as hard as they knew I could. I succeeded because of their genuine interest in my achievements.  I was able to come to many new, profound conclusions because I felt comfortable and motivated to ask questions on the topics covered in class. Unfortunately, according to Edmundson and Schwartzman, I am the minority. The majority of students are cheating themselves of a true education by continually distancing themselves from their professors and peers.

The success of higher education is measured by the ability of students to graduate as knowledgeable, well-rounded individuals who have amassed the necessary skills for their area of expertise, and have gained deep-rooted critical assessment skills.  The “clientele” mentality causes students to be less prepared for their chosen course of study because many are ill-equipped to know what classes will challenge them for the future. Furthermore, by empowering students as consumers higher education institutions are actually failing their customers. Learners need guidance and support on their academic journey.  A college education should focus on pedagogy that thoughtfully deepens each student’s blueprint of reasoning and complex thinking.  To achieve this goal, college classes must be a riveting combination of engagement, stimulation, and sometimes frenzied, dialogue as these are the moments when true learning happens.

Works Cited

 Edmundson, Mark. “On the Uses of a Liberal Education.” Editorial. Harper’s Magazine 1 Sept. 1997: n. pag. Print.

Schwartzman, Roy. “Are Students Customers? The Metaphoric Mismatch Between

 Management and Education.” Education Vol. 116 No. 2 (n.d.): n. pag. Print.