Learning the Consumers Some Education in Texas

It has been more than 15 years since I sat in a university classroom as a student. In that time, the cost of 4 years at the school I attended has increased from about $40k to over $70k. For this and other reasons (four offspring who may well wish to learn what universities used to offer) I am most interested in approaches which would slow down or reverse the cost of acquiring a degree after high school.

Texans are apparently not in agreement about how this might be done:

The stakes in a tug of war over higher education grew Wednesday, as the University of Texas at Austin’s largest academic division issued an uncompromising rebuttal to the market-driven approach favored by Gov. Rick Perry and some of his supporters.

The centerpiece of the movement, known as the “seven breakthrough solutions,” calls for treating students as “customers,” judging faculty by how many students they teach and how those students rate them, and de-emphasizing research that doesn’t produce an immediate financial return.

I don’t know about you, but to me this sounds like some fairly boilerplate business thinking. Nothing wrong with that at all.

Diehl said he and others are willing to talk about the issues. But the UT report was sharply critical of the proposed solutions, saying they “over-emphasize the student’s role as a ‘customer’ at the expense of the more vital role of ‘learner.’ … The higher education experience is not akin to shopping on iTunes or visiting Banana Republic.”

Remember, kids. Diehl is smarter than we are. It does not matter that we might wish to procure our higher education in the most efficient way possible (a la iTunes). We are simple learners.

He is the expert. Hear him roar.


9 thoughts on “Learning the Consumers Some Education in Texas

  1. Somehow I cringe when I hear market-driven and education in the same context. I’m all for students gaining an affordable education with which they can earn a livelihood. But I have problem with students assuming the role of consumers and dictating to professors what they will teach. Once a student has an attitude that the teacher is his employee and answers to him for course content and ease of assignments the whole discipline of teaching will be undermined. Teachers need to have the freedom to not worry about winning popularity contests, but concentrate on communicating their subjects adequately. As for immediate results for every course studied that is too short sighted and ultimately will be counter productive. Surely there is a balance between the theoretical and the practical.

    1. I do not see students assuming the role of consumers: they already have that role. Recognizing it is important. I do not think that they will “dictate to professors what they will teach” any more than you or I dictate to WalMart what we will buy. Like any good provider of products or services, universities provide options and consumers figure out which of them are of value.

      Teachers don’t have to win popularity contests any more than I need to do so in my work context. But, in either case, the one receiving the benefit of the instruction/consulting should be reasonably satisfied with the effort.

      I believe the reference to research was not “immediate results for every course studied” but rather attempting to ensure that universities do not tie up large sums of money in long-term projects where the cost of carrying the project year after year prevents other essential budget items from proper funding.

      To me, institutes of higher learning are businesses–with all that such a label entails. If one wants to have a university not be a business, then one needs to set up a remarkably different context (commune, church, etc).

      And, remember that we are talking about public universities. Private schools may do whatever they wish–including wasting endowments and going crazy with mascot uniforms, research into the mating patterns of cabbage butterflies, etc. Public schools, on the other hand should be providing the most efficient, streamlined path to a degree which is possible.

  2. We must trust the consumers.

    Students who want a disciplined, challenging environment where they will learn something serious will find it and pay for it just as they have from the time of Socrates. In the beginning of the university system, it was a thoroughly market-driven phenomonon and this method produced such eminent scholars as Sir Isaac Newton, St. Thomas Aquinas, Johannes Keppler, Erasmus of Rotterdam, John Calvin, and others. Is Lemoneater suggesting people don’t want to learn any more?

    Perhaps, but I doubt it. It’s worth a try, however, for we can say with absolute certainty that insulating academia from market forces has all but destroyed the university’s credibility.

    1. I believe academia has suffered overmuch from a reliance on experts–as have other domains in our society. Reintroducing academia to the market should have the benefit of letting the experts see just how far off they have gotten since leaving the real world. Some will learn and adjust and grow. Others will grumble and fight and complain and attempt to hang on to things as they used to be.

  3. In this current educational trend of student as consumer, with few exceptions, private universities have also followed suit, and dance to the tune the pied Market is piping. For the purposes of this discussion, the difference is moot, both are desperate to keep revenue and are willing to sell their souls to do it.

    (Actually the customer in aggregate does dictate to Walmart what they will sell by taking their business elsewhere if they aren’t happy, as I did.)

    A university is based on ideals, a business less so. A university’s first consideration shouldn’t be the bottom line. If it has no higher calling than mere profit it doesn’t deserve to call itself a university. A few crucial differences between students and consumers: Students aren’t always right, but “customers are.” Students still “earn” their degrees, they do not ‘buy” them. The ridiculously high cost of education has led students to the conclusion that something is “owed” them through no effort of their own. Grade inflation is the new normal. A student who had numerous unexcused absences was shocked to realize it lowered his score by a letter. When the professor refused to change the grade, the student told him he was from a wealthy, influential family.That is just the sort of leverage a customer uses with impunity, but a student should be ashamed to descend to.

    Doubtless, Sir Isaac Newton, Erasmus, and the others mentioned would have risen to the top regardless of whatever educational system was used. They were all exceptional learners with a driving thirst for knowledge and phenomenal self-discipline. However the majority of students are ordinary learners, myself included, so they need more guidance and external motivation than is the lot of the consumer. As it is, I’m ashamed to say that when I discovered that listening to the foreign language recordings in the language course I took were not counted as part of the grade, I didn’t listen to the language, because I preferred reading which took less time. My laziness and the discouragement of an already overloaded teacher meant that I gained less knowledge than was in my capability.

    An entitlement attitude has infected higher ed. This market driven approach will lower an already compromised immune system even more. My husband who is a professor at a private college, has had students tell him “I’m not paying you to teach me that.”One student taking a physics class for non science majors objected to having to learn about pendulums “which have no practical purpose.” The irony is that the student was himself preparing to teach some day, but had little respect for education.

    Read I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student by Patrick Allitt for a thoughtful yet witty look at the role of the university professor.

    It naturally follows that if the student is first and foremost a consumer, professor popularity is crucial. Among other things, my husband has been urged to adopt a student’s hobbies as his own whatever the hobby may be. Showing an interest in the student’s professional competence and future goals is a teacher’s privilege and lasting satisfaction, but assuming an interest in gaming or motorcycles just to attempt to be “best friends” is highly artificial. It is one thing to have uncaring teachers, it is quite another to require teachers to be entertainers regardless of personality and the need to maintain proper dignity and respect.

    My fighting against the windmill of mercantilist market forces may be futile, but realize entropy assumes many guises.

    1. A university is based on ideals? And businesses aren’t? Since when?

      A university is a business and always has been. They sell the certification of learning – it’s what they do. You can get an education with access to a good library or book-seller. You can get a good education from a wise grandparent. But to get the certificate that officially declares you “educated” you need the university. That’s what they sell and that’s what the students are paying for. We call it a “degree”. So, when junior says, “I’m not paying you to teach me this” the answer is, “Yes you are, since it’s necessary to get your precious certificate. If you don’t like it, transfer to another university where they’ll give you your certificate without it.”

      I know people who teach and populate the university like to create this grand illusion about their work as if it’s some sort of higher, more noble calling than that of the businessman whose market savvy makes sure there’s lunch in the cafeteria, but it is just an illusion. Professors are the intellectual equivalent of the food-servers. The board determines the menu, profs put the food on the plate and certify whether or not the customer actually ate it. If the students don’t like the food, they’re free to go to a different cafe.

      This hints, however, at the problem of the accrediting institutions who essentially monopolize curriculum discussion – another problem entirely since it effectively eliminates distinctions among the universities. They basically make sure that, whatever name is out front on the marquee, whatever the decor or marketing strategy is, the only menu is McDonald’s.

      We need to get away from the idea that everybody needs the certificate – they don’t – and we need to stop insulating academia from the rest of society. We’ve too long deferred to “experts” who have lots of certificates (degrees) and no sense.

      1. “Professors are the intellectual equivalent of food-servers.” Professors as the purveyors of watery mashed potatoes and overdone macaroni and cheese? I don’t accept that simile.

        With the level of trust and responsibility that a teacher bears, I would have considered a shepherd watching over sheep a more accurate comparision. In fact, a pastor should be a teacher. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Timothy+2%3A24&version=NIV Both a pastor and a teacher have the opportunity to present to present truth or error and shape the world view of others by virtue of their position. But I don’t need to preach this truism to you. I have a suspicion that you’ve been playing devil’s advocate to draw out the discussion. You have assumed the garb of a Philistine for this verbal engagement. I cannot explain such ignorance otherwise.

        I maintain that a university has more characteristics in common with a non-profit organization than with a business. Universities have endowments and take donations something businesses do not do. Also they often have tax breaks utterly unavailable to regular businesses. If an unimaginative IRS says something is special, perhaps it is.

        I’m certain we all could point to businesses that have ideals. As an investor, I specifically look for a business with a vision. However,the primary goal of any business is to make money whatever else is stated, but a university’s primary goal should be to educate students.

    2. Lemoneater,

      Perhaps we can agree that for a variety of reasons a university degree has gotten increasingly expensive to point where middle-class people are seriously considering whether the investment is worth it anymore. I am one of them. Should current trends continue, I find it doubtful that any of my children will attend a traditional university or college.

      There are good ways and poor ways to ensure that teachers teach and students study. Some of your examples point to the lack of maturity on the part of students–the very thing that many of them need to improve upon in the first place. They also apparently do not understand the nature of contracts very well. If the course they attend covers the material laid out in the course description/syllabus then they have themselves to blame for not understanding what was being offered. If however, the course was not as advertised, then that is a different matter altogether.

      Conflating entitlements with a market approach to education is, I believe, improper.

      Perhaps we can agree that higher education as currently practiced in the United States is seriously damaged (nay, even broken). Exactly what steps must be taken are open to discussion–as we have seen h ere. I do firmly believe that the current system will soon collapse under its own weight if it does not become more efficient and businesslike.

      1. I agree that higher education has an illness, but what I object to is the choice of physicians. The market (in the sense as common business wisdom) will prescribe the wrong medicine, or even worse perform the wrong surgery because as a rule it does not understand the physiology of a university. At a superficial glance a university may resemble a business, but the anatomy is vastly different.

        I see student entitlement as a symptom of the illness that will only be worsened by improper treatment. Too many college administrators are having an identity/vision crisis and making the mistake of King Asa by seeking to the physicians when they should seek the Lord. Even when change is needed, not every change is good.

        Ironically, at a time when many traditional universities are losing their idealism and have bureaucratic bloat, many community colleges are gaining their idealism and improving the quality of their education. Perhaps the junior college will finally come of age. Can traditional for year colleges learn to trim the fat, but keep the muscle or will they lose the race through apathy and ignorance.

        Then there is the whole matter of online education. What will the future be?

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