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Students Became Customers, and Education Suffered

U.S. colleges have still not found a clear path towards safely resuming in-person classes.  Michigan State joined the list of universities that, despite publicly planning to resume in-person instruction, returned to an all-online format at the last minute.  And Notre Dame has suspended in-person classes for two weeks while it re-evaluates its ability to conduct them savely.  

Writing in the Washington Post, Megan McArdle suggests that one of the reasons the American higher education system as a whole is dealing with this stress so poorly is the degree to which education has ceased being a public good and instead has become a consumer lifestyle product.

“(T)he pandemic has made something undeniable: To a large extent, students have become customers,” she writes.  “(T)he commodification of higher education is a direct byproduct of the transformation of college into the entrance examination for America’s middle class.”

The more of a consumer product education became, she suggests, the more actual learning became “bundled” with all of the other things we associate with colleges today:  amenities and parties, sports and luxurious campuses.  Before covid-19, we could tell ourselves it was still all about learning, really.  But now?  McArdle’s verdict is harsh:

“(C)ovid-19 came, and suddenly, the lectures and the homework were the only part schools could still deliver. Yet somehow, few students seem reassured that they’re getting most of what they were paying tuition for.

Deep down, even university presidents knew this would be the case, which is why so many spent the summer pretending they were going to find some way to reopen, in many cases announcing the truth only when the tuition checks were well in hand. One can imagine a university in which this sort of at-best-wishful thinking wasn’t necessary, one that defined its community narrowly around education. Such schools probably couldn’t enroll nearly half of all high school graduates, but on the other hand, in our current situation, they might have kept the ones they did sign up.”

Like we said, that’s harsh, but fundamentally McArdle has a point.  While some subjects really do benefit in important ways from having in-person classes and teaching, for many institutions the core experience they offer has been a lifestyle brand and a credential, rather than the actual conveying of information.  And that’s not a public service, that’s a consumer good.

And look, who are we to say that parents shouldn’t spend money on that consumer good for their children?  That’s it’s not valuable or important?  We’re not going to tell people what their priorities should be.  

But we can say that it is important, even essential, that education be available as a public good;  and that education provided as a public good, a right that everyone should have access to, works on a very different model than education as a consumer good.  

Education as a public service asks “what do you need?” and “how can we provide it as simply and conveniently as possible?”  Education as a consumer lifestyle brand tries to dazzle with add ons and upsells. 

There needs to be a public option for education, and if that public option looks and works and is funded a lot differently than the consumer option for education?  That actually makes perfect sense.