May 19th, 2014

Education and Consumerism: Using Students’ Assumptions to Challenge Their Thinking


With increasing stridence, college students and their parents frame their educational expectations with a consumer paradigm, viewing professors as their employees, universities as consumer markets, and degrees as commodities. As a humanities professor, I have always bristled at this equation. However, I see a way to use this metaphor for good purpose. Rather than fight this flawed mentality, I present the consumer model during one of our first class sessions and engage students in an exploration of its applicability to the educational enterprise.

First, I endorse the maxim that “you get what you pay for.” Second, I encourage students to conceive of the course (at least temporarily) as a transaction and our student-professor relationship as a business relationship. As a professor of creative writing, literature, and composition, I never thought I would write that sentence. However, embracing the consumer paradigm that has made educators grind their teeth is a way to test students’ assumptions about the purpose and value of a college education, the responsibilities of both the student, the professor, and the institution, and the standards by which consumers should assess the worth of a product. In form, this discussion might resemble the negotiation of a contract between two parties who want to define the terms of a purchase or an exchange of goods or services. Though I have the key components in mind before the class begins, I engage the students in constructing the language and defining terms and conditions of this contract.

In the part of this discussion, which may consume one or more class sessions, I ask students to define the content or skills suggested by the course description that have a clear market value, encouraging them to think in terms of specific companies, types of work, or industries that they hope to enter. For example, I ask, “Based on my descriptions of this course’s content and objectives, what specific skill or knowledge can you acquire that could have a real and practical value for ____________ (individuals in a particular field or industry)? Why is that skill or knowledge valuable, desirable or useful to ______________ (employers in that particular industry)?”

Next, I ask them to consider pricing. In one sense, students are acquiring intellectual and social goods that they will later sell or trade to someone else who wants them. So I ask, “What should this valuable knowledge or skill cost you to acquire? Can it be purchased or does it have to be earned?” Then I ask them to consider why a future employer would be willing to pay for this good, and what price that employer would consider reasonable. The point of this discussion is to challenge students’ assumptions that they are the consumers in this equation. A more useful application of the consumer model acknowledges that the “product” universities are generating is the student’s mind and professional readiness. If students can see that they occupy a different space in the equation, then they can begin to think differently about what is at stake for them as a participant in the educational exchange.

Once they have wrestled with these questions, I ask students to consider the terms and conditions of the student-professor relationship. As one of many suppliers who help produce prospective employees for the world’s industries, I generate various grades of intellectual capital. Likewise, I have various grades of raw material available for students to transform into that intellectual capital. High-quality skills and knowledge are available, but only at a high price. Cheaper quality intellectual goods are available for a cheaper price. I ask students what currency they can use to acquire these intellectual goods. The most astute students recognize quickly that “their money is no good here.” The currency that works is time and attention.

Before we conclude the exploration and application of the consumer metaphor, I press one other element. It might be tempting for students to view the university as a large manufacturing enterprise and professors as various mechanisms in an assembly line process. However, assembly production is only way to create goods. One of the reasons private, liberal arts, face-to-face education is expensive is that it can be individualized. Our goods are shaped by hand, and no two students come out with exactly the same intellectual, spiritual, or imaginative acuity.

An equitable investment on both sides
Ultimately, this discussion can help us to define the nature of our obligations to one another. As we negotiate the contract, students have an opportunity to define learning outcomes in terms of quality and caliber. If the class is a rhetoric and research writing class, for example, then we can specific what distinguishes high-quality communication and research skills (Egyptian cotton) from low-quality skills (burlap). Both are serviceable, but they make very different impressions on the one who wears them. We can clarify what distinguishes high-quality syntax and vocabulary (silk) from basic literacy (polyester)? Furthermore, we can determine fair pricing for both the high-quality goods—intellectual contribution and risk-taking, active engagement, advance preparation—and the cheaper knock-off: minimal attendance, mediocre intellectual exertion, predictability.

Finally, I ask students to consider what their teacher’s investment in the transaction should be. If instruction can be understood as the kind of time, care, and expertise that a carpenter might invest in fine cabinetry, then what constitutes superior instructional investment? And what would mark instruction as basic—just enough to satisfy the minimum requirements? If the consumer model is one the students want to embrace, then level of investment should be equitable on both sides of the table.

If in education, as in business, we get what we pay for, and the real currency with which students acquire knowledge and/or professional skill is their time and attention to the task of learning, not their money, then what students get from the class and from the instructor should match what they’ve paid for that educational experience. If students don’t want to pay a premium price for premium intellectual goods, then they shouldn’t expect to get premium personal attention from the instructor. I remind students that my initial investment in the course is equitable. Everyone gets the same syllabus, the same assignments, equal opportunity to participate in or lead discussion, identical lectures (yes, on occasion I still give lectures), the same research and reading assignments, the same intellectual invitations and challenges. Unfortunately, some students just want a bargain; they spend a little to get a little. Others want the premium goods, willingly investing exceptional intellectual capital to get the good stuff. If we adopt a consumer mentality as the model for higher education, then it only makes sense for the instructor to match students’ intellectual investment penny for penny.

Engaging students in an analysis of the consumer model creates an opportunity for decision-making. Some students will likely reject this model, arguing that it is insufficient, ill-fitted, or inappropriate to the mission of higher education. Others will endorse the consumer model even more passionately, recognizing the complexity, rather than the oversimplification of this metaphor. Either way, they are thinking. And that’s a check I will happily cash any day.

Deborah Miller Fox teaches creative writing, composition, and literature at Anderson University, a private liberal arts university in central Indiana.

© Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.

  • John

    Absolutely wonderful. Thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece of writing.

    • Deborah Miller Fox

      I'm pleased that these ideas resonated with you, John. I think the topic is one that can be addressed in a variety of college classes: freshman composition, first year experience, introductory level courses in many disciplines, etc. If you engage your students in a conversation like the one I described, I'd love to hear about it.

  • Theresa

    Thank you for this essay. As an economics teacher I can easily see it as a most productive introduction to my subject matter and class structure. It is an innovative "first class" introduction to the class which many students see as valuable solely because it is "required".
    Thanks again.

  • James

    This is great! I've not been able to articulate my own thinking on the consumerist model quite so well, so this is a very helpful framework. Liberal arts rule!

  • Joe Momma

    I like the aspect of this that emphasizes to students that they ARE NOT the customers – asking about value added, price – and the emphasis on individualized outcomes and responsibilities. However, I caution that anything that legitimizes the "student as customer" tripe we hear from administrators and politicians is dangerous. We know that students aren't customers in many cases due to the outcomes that type of thinking generates – the inmates run the asylum. These days, that analogy is a little too close I think.

  • Kerry

    I remember, years ago when I was a student, my idea was to put little effort into those classes that did not pertain to my major—so my expectations for the content and its presentation by the instructor in those classes were very low. To my surprise, good instructors made the difference. They were able to raise my interest in many subjects and inspired me to work harder and to rethink my path for the future. I'm not sure a contract would have allowed for or aniticipated such changes in course.

  • Anton

    Deborah, I think that this is a very interesting take on the consumerist mentality. What I find most intriguing about it was that you don't try and work your way around the edges, you take the consumer model heads on. I think many students would find this refreshing, but you push them to see the full implications of that thought process, so Bravo! In my own classes, my approach is less direct, focusing on asking students to evaluate and discuss different outcomes of a class: content knowledge (facts, concepts), professional skills (communication, critical thinking, teamwork), and lifelong learning abilities & strategies. The next question asks them which of these they can learn on their own most effectively and which ones really would be a good use of class time with an instructor who can help them learn. I teach upper division courses, so very few students (although there are always some) will argue that class time is best spent on content acquisition; most opt for choices 2 and 3. These questions were originally described by Gary Smith from the University of New Mexico. The best part of this discussion is that students are hearing this input from their peers, not coming "top down" from me. Another approach I have used fairly well before, because I teach clinically related courses, is to discuss the consumer model, but not from the product-consumer perspective (which is what you do). I think that education is not about a product; it is a service. So a service-model is a better fit, like a visit to the doctor. Do you want the doctor to just lecture you? Or do you, as a patient, have some responsibility for the quality of your care and the outcomes of the service? A service is not a manufactured product — its quality results from the interaction of the professional and the patient.

  • Maggie

    Thank you – this is brilliant! I agree that creating this space for mutual exploration of the 'why', 'what', and 'how' questions early in a course is foundational to successful outcomes for teaching and learning: What are the roles and responsibilities of both the student and the teacher? How can the teacher facilitate empowerment for the learners to be active participants in their own learning? Why is ownership of own learning so important in life in general? Strategies like you describe help to promote the realisation that becoming a life-long learner is something only you can do for yourself and this requires a personal commitment to much time and effort. I like to constantly reflect on and revise my own teaching and learning philosophy (garden metaphor) and share this with my students. I also enable students to share their own most memorable learning experiences to gain insight about what works well. In addition, at the beginning of each course, I make time to mutually identify guidelines for collaboration with my students. We critically examine and outline our respective roles and responsibilities and what we can all contribute to promoting an actively engaging and safe teaching/learning environment. At this stage, I also find it useful to clearly outline my own expectations for engaging in the 'business' of teaching and learning in my classes. Group guidelines are written up and posted on (D2L). I explain that these guidelines are not written in stone and students share the responsibility of revising them as needed. Students have told me how much they appreciate the clear expectations and the opportunity to voice their values and beliefs about teaching and learning.

  • Aswani Kumar

    Wonderful thoughts.

  • I've used this kind of analysis myself, but in a different context. I teach marketing and fundraising, so I use the opportunity to ask students to fit the university into the familiar "4 Ps" model (Product, Price, Place, Promotion). When challenged to identify the products of the university, it doesn't take them long to realize that they themselves are among the university's products. As soon as they make that connection, it doesn't take them long to understand that the university's perceived quality as a supplier is directly linked to their own performance, in the short term as students, and in the long term as graduates. This serves to explain why the universities widely recognized as the best, are also widely regarded as the most difficult.

    From a fundraising standpoint, it allows me to clarify that students should NOT be described to prospective donors as the primary beneficiaries of the university. The primary beneficiaries are the companies and organizations that will eventually hire the university's graduates and, by extension, the clients of those companies and organizations. While there is an obvious tangential benefit to the student, that benefit alone is insufficient to motivate significant philanthropic giving.

  • Christine Starr Davis

    For years, I had my first year rhetoric students prepare an argument which explores the question: Who Works for Whom? Do Students Work for Professors or the Other Way Around? Some students argue vehemently (though not very credibly) that they are in charge of the relationship. Others focus on the slave-driving profs who clearly are in charge. Of course, most students come around to the realization that it is a partnership more than an employer/employee relationship. Sometimes, I tell them being a professor is more like being an athletic coach (our campus is very oriented toward athletics). The player doesn't tell the coach how to do his/her job, nor often question the coach's instruction, whether tedious or not. It is understood that the coach has the big picture in mind and that his/her direction will result in the best outcome for the player. As I employ more collaborative learning models, that hasn't been as useful to me. What you have described above is an extremely interesting way to introduce the idea of the student's effort being a huge factor in how the investment in college pays off when they leave campus. It sounds so obvious, but many students really want the class to be shaped in a way that allows them to exert the least effort for the biggest payoff. They think the diploma is what will cinch the job, not what it took to earn it.

  • Thanks so much, Deborah, for an approach that faces the problem head on and that is applicable not just in the classroom, but in administrative and counselling situations, as well.

  • I enjoyed this article very much. I wondered while reading it if you had considered mentioning to students all the other add-ons available to them when they come to University to "purchase" an education? They are not just buying a class from one professor – that is a minimalist view of the whole "purchase". Add-ons that come as part of the purchase of their "education product" include use of the lecture theatres and seminar rooms, labs, IT support, online delivery of learning materials library services and so on. Is it worthwhile mentioning that it's a great idea to make the most of the whole "education package" while they are studying? Their investment in their education will grow exponentially if they take full advantage of the whole experience.

  • Bob Adkinson

    Although an excellent article, with which I generally agree, it did not touch on the perspective a lifelong learner might have. Anton did touch on lifelong learning (choice three) in his comment, and from that perspective I would argue the serious student is indeed a consumer who has purchased a learning opportunity. Example: This spring semester, the last course in my Master's program was taught by a newly-minted, young PhD that lectured by sitting and talking to the slides on his computer screen, and tested on the minutiae he could locate in the undergrad textbook we used (250+ pages per test). I was expecting a learning opportunity, but this course was about memorizing! Being used to digging in and applying the material, I felt cheated. But then again, since this was at a state-owned university, it may fall under your concept of getting what I paid for?!?

  • Vijendra Agarwal

    An interesting perspective. I like and appreciate the article.

  • Chris

    This is an interesting approach. I think most professors either ignore the comparison or explicitly fight it, which may be interpreted by students to be some kind of attack on capitalism (it often is). I like the idea that even if students embrace the consumer comparison, they're still not critically thinking about the implications, particularly in regards to their role. I think many students (I usually teach freshman comp) operate under a "pay a lot and do as little as possible," model, which seems difficult to justify, considering there doesn't seem to be very many applications of this mentality elsewhere (except maybe insurance?). Viewing education as a service over manufactured product may also be a good idea (as mentioned in a previous comment).

  • Meg

    Deborah, Your column resonated with me. I hear the white noise of "I need an A in your class" as if the under-prepared or unfocused student is shopping for a buy one get one free deal with no appreciation for the work required to master content to earn an A.

    Yet, for many non-traditional students and first generation learners, this conversation is an excellent opportunity to help them understand and define their role. I am intrigued to hear their responses as well as the traditional first or second year college student. (I teach comp at the community college level.)

  • ramlmmjem

    As you say…'at least they are thinking'! I agree. For your interest, here's a link to a piece I did on the student as co-producer rather than consumer which you might find helpful in engaging your students further with the idea of what they are they in college/university.

    If you (or anyone else) have difficulties accessing it, please let me know ( and I'll let you have a copy.


  • Chris

    Great article, Alistair.

    • Alistair

      Thanks Chris. Only just found this post again!!!

  • Sherran

    What a wonderful article.

  • Irene

    Brilliant! I have been praticing liket this in my Math classes, it works well. Liberal Arts RULE!

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