Finding the Right Metaphor for Higher Education

Around the turn of the century Millenials started going to college. At about the same time, a national conversation sprung up about how higher education seemed to have suddenly become a commodity. Education had become a product and students had become consumers.

Defenders of the consumer model of higher education argue that it gives students power. Instead of being mice in a maze of an institution’s design, powerless to define the goals of their own education, students have become more like riders in an Uber, not only determining their own destinations but more than ready to rate their experience via Smartphone.

This is power — of a sort. And there is value in it. But there is more to the story.

Satisfaction Guaranteed

The consumer model of higher education has been fueled, in part, by the thunderous rise (and fall) of for-profit universities in America. State and federal governments, alarmed by rising student debt (debt largely underwritten by the U.S. government), have started cracking down.

If the educational product is defective, they won’t pay for it anymore.

New rules were drafted to mandate that students get their money’s worth out of a college degree. As the National Conference of State Legislatures puts it, the “main intent of the regulations [is] to help ensure students are getting from schools what they pay for — solid preparation for a good job.” Too many students have been graduating with degrees but without skills.

In this arena, for profit-universities are easy targets. It’s tempting to scapegoat them, but shutting down the profit-motive won’t wipe out the consumer model of higher education. The cat is out of the bag and it’s wiping out whole species in the shrubbery.

Regardless of corporate status, the skill-free outcomes that for-profit universities are accused of producing are inevitable outcomes in any educational system treating students as customers. Recently shuttered schools like Corinthian College and ITT Tech may have been early adopters of a consumer model of education, but they are by no means alone.

The student-loan dollars that private schools rely on are exactly the same student-loan dollars that private non-profit and public universities rely on. The infrastructure of higher education is not bounded by any public-private divide.

The problem then is not a profit motive. The problem is the consumer model itself, predicated as it is on the exigencies of customer satisfaction.

And while Congress is right to demand that higher education generate a skilled work-force, they may be treating the symptoms and not the cause.

The government might quite reasonably measure success by what graduates go on to do after college, but the colleges themselves are measuring student satisfaction. When the student becomes a graduate, he stops filling out end-of-semester surveys.

The Fast-Food Analogy

Consider a food parallel and the problematic nature of this issue becomes clear. We all know (or should know) that fast-food tastes great because it is full of (delicious) sugar and fat.

Nutritionally, we understand that eating more vegetables and whole grains (and eating less fast-food) will make us healthier people. Yet, the line of cars in the drive-thru winds around the building every lunch hour. Fast-food makes people happy, even if it doesn’t make people healthy.

In seeking to please the customer, fast-food restaurants do the obvious thing — they give people what they want, not what’s good for them in the long run. They satisfy the demands of the moment. That is how the consumer model works for almost every industry. And most of the time, it simply makes for good business. But is it good for education?

Writing for the American Association of University Professors, Miguel Martinez-Saenz and Steven Schoonover Jr. make this very point, suggesting that the consumer model of education creates a situation where, metaphorically, instructors are powerless to induce students to “eat their vegetables.”

“The problem is,” they argue, “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.”

Students who are actually challenged to grow may not be happy customers.

This dynamic is undoubtedly a contributing factor in any systemic skill-free or growth-lite outcomes we are seeing in higher education.

A Better Analogy

There is a twist to this story. For-profit universities helped to launch a trend that has carried over to traditional colleges and universities where the rhetoric of a student-consumer model of education masks a deeper truth — these students are being used as a means for schools to collect guaranteed, government-backed student loans.

This economic ecosystem is fittingly similar to that of social media platforms. For the Millennial generation, the relationship of student-to-university is parallel to that of user-to-social-media-platform, that of the “Tweeter” to Twitter, as it were.

Sites like Facebook and Twitter invite the user in — “for free” — then turn around and sell the user’s data, transforming the user into a new sort of product. The current environment of student loan policy makes for a striking mirror-effect between the business of social media and the business of higher education, but let’s leave that aside for now.

The bigger issue is, after all, the issue of student outcomes. If the current consumer model is set-up to fail because it is a fast-food concept shaped to satisfy a student’s short term demands, we should look for a more productive metaphor.

If we look at higher education as something like Cross-Fit or a gym membership, maybe we can construct a better consumer model of education. You sign up for Cross-Fit understanding that a successful outcome requires work. When you rate the program at the end, you rate it according to how much it pushed you to work — how much it challenged you.

The personal trainer has a mandate that college professors may not have anymore. She can tell you to dig deep and work harder. Her ratings depend on it.

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