Are Students ‘Customers’? Let’s Hope Not.

To the Editor:

David M. Perry’s article on consumer lingo in academe (Faculty Members Are Not Cashiers,” The Chronicle, March 17) is completely correct, but his argument about what is wrong with this lingo misses a key point: it’s not just that people who use this language devalue or misvalue education, but also that they completely misunderstand what a customer is. They to get both sides of the metaphor wrong. When students, faculty, or administrators use the student-as-consumer metaphor, they typically make two fatal mistakes in how they picture a customer.

1. They assume that if students are customers, then students set the agenda and determine the product. But what company asks its customers to write its business plan? Let’s take the metaphor seriously and imagine students as customers. They are buying the chance to be exposed to and learn from the expertise of their instructors, not the opportunity to tell their teachers what to teach or how to grade. When students complain that an instructor grades harder or assigns more reading than the students like, they are complaining that the university is providing exactly what it promised (an expert who determines class content and grades) and that they did not receive an inferior product (content and grades determined by an non-expert student). That’s not a customer-service complaint; it’s a complaint from a highly confused person who has no idea what he or she paid for. After all, if I walk into a BMW showroom and complain that they aren’t offering Kias, I’m not a customer who is right; I’m just a person in the wrong place. No BMW salesperson will rush out to get me a Kia; they’ll send me packing, after trying to get me to buy one of their cars.

2. They assume that there are no limits on customers, so, for example, students should be allowed to nap or text in class if they want. But, in reality, there are always limits placed on customers. Restaurants require their patrons to wear shoes and shirts, and one can’t take a nap in the aisle at Target. Plenty of cafes post signs indicating that customers on cell phones will not be served. In general, customers have to conform to norms set by providers, so why should these norms disappear at college? If anything, these norms are even more important at a college since something like disruptive classroom behavior interferes with instructors being able to deliver the promised product—an education—to other students.

I still don’t agree with the use of this language because it just does not work for the educational system: the average consumer doesn’t, over time, wind up with more and better choices or more power. They wind up with fewer, lower-quality choices and less power as smaller, niche providers are pushed out of business, competition disappears, and larger providers consolidate and pressure their employees and suppliers to create crummier products from which consumers can “choose.” But before we take the stance that the users of this lingo expect us to take—education is special and can’t be commercialized!—we should question the ground they stand on so confidently and point out that they may not know the corporate world as well as they think.

Clara Burke
Lecturer
Wisconsin School of Business
University of Wisconsin
Madison, Wisc.

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