Resisting the "Student-as-Consumer" Metaphor

The wrong metaphor at the wrong time.
By Miguel Martinez-Saenz and Steven Schoonover Jr.

College should be affordable to all. President Barack Obama made this point in a recent State of the Union address, saying that “higher education cannot be a luxury. It is an economic imperative that every family should be able to afford.” Stanford president John L. Hennessy has argued that college affordability should be understood as a national security issue: No country can adequately compete in the global marketplace without guaranteeing citizens reasonable and widespread access to institutions of higher learning. During the 2012 presidential campaign, the public condemnation that greeted Republican primary candidate Rick Santorum’s suggestion that “not every child should go to college” proved that the goal of college access is untouchable today. College affordability is quickly becoming the third rail of US politics. This is not to claim that there is paucity of critics. On the contrary, one can read Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation, Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do about It, or Robert Archibald and David Feldman’s Why Does College Cost So Much? Yet all these writers unequivocally frame educational issues in the language of economic markets.

We hear a great deal about the role higher education ought to play in public and private life, although the messages are disparate and often contradictory. What is less discussed is the role that market language plays in generating this conflict. Pervasive marketing and branding strategies tout the idea of pursuing a college degree to increase one’s earning potential, while the unwanted consequences of the drive to expand market demand are downplayed or ignored. When universities prioritize the expansion of market demand for their “product,” campuses cease to challenge students to engage in a sometimes painful and unpleasant process of self-discovery and knowledge creation that requires commitment, discipline, and persistence. Instead of selling the idea that higher education is about knowledge, growth, and development, then, we sell a sometimes misleading expectation of the student experience for which the “customer” is willing to pay.

Stefan Collini aptly explains in a number of London Review of Books articles that colleges and universities sell a “student experience” because that is what students seek from us—even if it isn’t what they need. The value of education has become conceptualized as a private good. But it is a good that all too often requires parents to leverage their homes and their retirements, students to think desperately and narrowly of their return on investment, and universities to convey the message that only the life of consumption is worth pursuing.

Put differently, within the increasingly dominant social vision promoted by thinkers such as Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, today’s individual consumer is to be given free rein to choose between the various products made available in free markets. The inherent constraints imposed by the market appear to leave no moral room for collective agencies or government entities to positively enable autonomous choices by instituting processes that are difficult and appear undesirable in the short run. This does not mean that Rand or Friedman were anarchists; they did not oppose government as such. But in the view of many of their followers, charging government with more than upholding an arena of noninterference and liberty within which individuals can act according to their own preferences is a step on the slippery slope into totalitarianism and terror. In this view, the primary way to avoid any such fall is to maintain the sovereignty of individual consumers. The limit of this approach is clearest in the realm of education: the student consumer—by definition without education— is improperly positioned to wield responsibility as sovereign arbiter of his or her own educational needs.

The twentieth century saw the expansion of this market model to an astonishing number of social spheres. The fear and eventual collapse of Soviet communism has enshrined a horror at the notion of collectivized decision making and a widespread confidence in privatized production as a solution to myriad ills. If capitalism is not the best option, perhaps—like Winston Churchill’s democracy—it is the least evil. But the increasingly frequent polemics opposing the “student-as-consumer” model of university education are symptoms of a growing resistance to the effects of this model on the evolution of contemporary universities.

One need only look at a few of the books mentioned above or Jennifer Washburn’s University, Inc. to get a feel for the impact of privatization on college campuses both in substance and rhetoric. Like all businesses, universities now give overwhelming weight to the preferences and desires of their “consumers” (students) in designing classroom curricula. The problem is—as Stanley Fish has argued (and as Socrates knew before him)—effective teaching often involves nurturing confusion, resisting clear and immediately satisfying answers, and promoting a general dissatisfaction among students. Any educational model that redesigns content to meet the existing preferences of students is bound to undermine the quality of education.

Perhaps it is time to make the more general claim that a central problem with the current hegemony of this market vision is the falsity of the model’s basic premise that the consumer is always right. In the case of higher education, the student-consumer may not be in a position to make an informed judgment about the quality of an educational experience until well after he or she has digested a quality education. The educational process itself may be painful and anything but immediately satisfying. Most of us have experienced aggravation and disappointment at the rigorous demands and discipline required by some activity—such as a university course—only to become thankful later that our mentors stuck to their guns. We may proclaim that university professors are doing a horrible job while we are in their classrooms, only later to recognize that our judgment reflected our own immaturity rather than the quality of the teacher.

Society is now experiencing the profound limitations of the market elevation of consumer sovereignty in a plethora of other areas as well. As economist Joseph Stiglitz has argued, the 2008 financial crisis arose in large part from the false assumption that consumers were in a good epistemic position to evaluate the financial products being peddled to them by the banking industry. The “asymmetry of information” between buyer and seller allowed homeowners to be cajoled by complex financial products designed to mislead them into accepting greater economic risk than they could bear. The recently established Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is an attempt to address this asymmetry.

Unfortunately, there is no analogous effort in universities today. Some may argue that accrediting bodies are playing this role, but simply asking colleges and universities to provide “evidence” of student learning outcomes, as accreditors do, does not guarantee that students actually learn. The sovereignty of the student-consumer, increasing with the reverence given to student evaluations by faculty and administration alike, has prompted the suggestion that today’s university faculty are little more than sophisticated clowns or court jesters providing idiotic entertainment for the paying customer.

What should be especially alarming is not simply the growing hegemony of the market model within the university but also the antidemocratic tenor of its critics. Whereas the market model clearly errs by incentivizing the ascendancy of the student body, thereby introducing informational deficits into curricula design, critics of the market model seek to correct this deficiency by replacing the current sovereign with yet another—most often themselves. As one teacher Fish approvingly quotes put it, “Sorry kids, you are not the authority in the classroom. Me Teacher. You student. Me Teach, you learn. End of discussion. . . . Education is not a business. You are not my customer. My classroom is not Burger King. You do not get to ‘have it your way.’” Students get what is presented as the only other option—the professor’s way.

One must keep in mind that the fundamental problem with the student-as-consumer model is not simply that it elevates the wrong social position to sovereignty. The informational limitations of the model arise from elevating any single group of actors to the position of unaccountable arbiter of educational content. Too many critics of today’s universities conceive the problem as one of replacing dominant decision makers with different ones instead of understanding the task as one of figuring out how to make meaningful collective decisions. It is almost as if the failure of the Soviet model of collective decision making has prompted us to reject collective decision making altogether. In practice, this frequently means demonizing those groups currently perceived as dominant actors in the process—faculty pointing fingers at the administration and at students, while students and administration return the accusations.

The point to emphasize here is that sometimes a bad system is reproduced not because participants fail to recognize the central problem with the system but rather because the way the problem is perceived introduces an ideological mystification into our reasoning. In the case of today’s universities, there is a tendency for each group to abstract its own behavior from explanations of the system’s harmful reproduction. The problem of informational inadequacy produced by the student-as-consumer model has the potential to reproduce itself in yet another form insofar as each social grouping imagines that the current limitation on its own power is the primary cause of the problem to which its own ascendancy is the solution.

The dominance of the market model in universities is the dominance of the false idea that the consumer alone can adequately speak in the name of education. Students cannot hope to do this. But neither can the administration or the faculty. To elevate any one group to the level of sovereign is effectively to enshrine the current and unfortunate fact that no one effectively speaks in the name of education. We must recognize that the only way to speak on behalf of universal educational interests is to find ways of speaking—each group from its distinct position—as a single voice.

We need to go beyond the informational limits of neoliberal models, all the while recognizing the catastrophic dangers of implementing a collective agency outside individuals that claims to speak in the name of universality. We cannot render educational decisions according to the logic of individual sovereignty. But neither can we naively rely on any centralized organization to speak on behalf of the collective. The challenge of the university, then, is to address this antagonism directly. We need to (re)imagine a democratic politics that elevates common goals in ways that avoid both the catastrophic dangers of individualism and the authoritarian strains of collectivism.

Steven Schoonover Jr. is a PhD candidate at Michigan State University and currently an instructor at St. Cloud Technical and Community College. Miguel Martinez-Saenz is a provost and vice president for academic affairs at Otterbein University.