Angie Raymond

Indiana University Business Law and Ethics

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Should University students be treated as customers? If so, what are student/customers entitled to expect?

A not so recent shift has occurred in higher education, students believing they are customers. I would argue this belief may come at the expense of the students learning. While I am not against students having reasonable expectations, (ie teacher that actually show up- and teach up to date and interesting topics) I am opposed to students that believe that lectures and out of class learning should be an easy, unchallenged, stroll through the day. I believe part of receiving an education is to expect to be challenged, to expect to do some work, and to expect to examine beliefs in a critical manner.

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    Sep 25 2011: As a college teacher who's heard the argument of "students as customers" many times, I have a ready answer for this.

    Absolutely, students are customers! The real question is "What are they buying?" The promise I make to my students is that they will emerge with new knowledge and with new abilities -- being able to do and to think in ways they could not do and think (or at least not as well) before.

    Acquiring these new abilities takes effort, though. There is simply no other way.

    In order to help clarify the concept for students, I like to use the analogy of physical training. If a person hires a trainer or coach to help them become a better athlete, that person is most definitely a customer. However, if the trainer/coach fails to challenge the client with the rigorous exercises necessary to build the desired athletic prowess, the client will not be getting their money's worth.

    Our students are entitled to expect increased prowess at the end of a course/program. They must realize, however, that no one can do the learning for them. This is a simple fact of biology: neither the brain nor the body works that way! Consequently, students must also expect the teacher to hold them accountable to progress, to offer appropriate encouragement toward their goals, and to help them identify any obstacles to those goals.
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      Sep 25 2011: The best summary of the contract between student and teacher at any grade level I have ever seen. Would you mind if I quoted it to my students and fellow teachers?
    • Sep 26 2011: i'm with you there, but who judges if a failure is due to the student or the teacher? and how? and how do we judge if that judge is in fact accurate? remember dunning-kruger!

      at my previous school one of the head teachers in charge of evaluations wasn't a very good teacher, as in the eyes of her students and other teachers (i corrected her spelling once, she told me "it didn't matter"... this was from an english teacher!). thankfully i was in a different section and didn't have to deal with her, but i saw at least 4 teachers whose students were improving well get put on probation and then ultimately forced out because they didn't teach like her and hence "weren't good teachers".
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        Oct 5 2011: The assessment of effective learning really needs to be external to the school. In professional (career-oriented) programs, the final arbiters should be employers who deem the graduates ready or not for entry-level work. For undergrad academic programs, the final arbiters could be the receiving institutions who deem the graduates ready or not for higher-level learning. For doctoral and post-doctoral work, the final arbiters could be professional societies who deem the graduates ready or not for contributions to the field. Accountability must be independent and unbiased, or else it is worse than useless.

        Your point referencing Dunning-Kruger is well taken. I have learned the hard way that student evaluations of teaching have little merit when the areas of evaluation are technical in nature. For instance, every year I have at least one student who argues with me over the necessity of learning some specific (difficult) concept, claiming they "won't need to know this in their career". My employer advisors invariably beg to differ. Asking students to rate their preparedness for a career prior to actually entering that career is folly, yet it is routine in my experience.

        As for whether it's the student's or the teacher's fault for lack of learning, certain statistical tools are helpful here. Pre-testing versus post-testing is one way to measure "value-added" education. Another way is to analyze success rates of particular graduates versus their classmates versus overall. If 90% of the graduates in a class are successful and the other 10% are not, it's more likely than not a problem with those 10% and not the instructor. If 90% of the graduates are successful, it's more likely a problem with the instructor or the school. In either case, though, further scrutiny is necessary to pinpoint the problem, and this scrutiny (ideally) comes from an external source.
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    Oct 3 2011: Yes. Customers, so long as they are there to buy learning. Students who believe they are buying degrees; students who don't want to be challenged... they are the problem.

    Students are paying for learning, should expect a high return of knowledge and insight for their money, and should be annoyed if they don't receive it.
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    Oct 4 2011: Well, it isn't that student believe they are customers. Students ARE customers. Right now, The Pell Grant pays about 1/4th of a university tuition per semester. A subsidized Stafford Loan still will not cover the rest. If you are like me and have decided to return to school 6 years or more after high school, you aren't getting any scholarships. The fact is, students are coming out of college educated and ready to work, but they are tens of thousands of dollars or more in debt. Then, the jobs simply aren't available to cover this massive debt. Blame whatever or whomever you wish, but facts are facts. Universities are expensive, the grants are drying up, the loans are getting more predatory, and the price tag is increasing. Students have every right to feel like customers.

    That said, I agree students can't think just because they pay for it, they can get a free ride. You still have to do the work and make the grades to earn your degree. Too many students are ill prepared by their parents and their high schools to deal with the reality of personal responsibility and real education (which requires both dedication and a desire to learn).

    There is absolutely some merit to students believing they are customers who are sometimes getting a raw deal. There is also some merit to the idea that students simply aren't approaching college in the correct mindstate. This is a part of a much bigger education debate. Educational reform, in my opinion, should be at the top of debates around the world. My country, America, especially needs to be discussing these things in more depth.
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      Oct 4 2011: I could not agree more-- time for a real debate about cost, access and educational reform!
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    Sep 30 2011: I believe that this is a fair question. As a Professor, I can understand your point about students who do not want to be challenged. However, I would submit that it is our fault for lowering our expectations of students to the point where they expect college to be like High School. For that matter, perhaps it is a larger issue in that even High School is not meeting the needs of the students to be challenged.

    Education should be challenging. We MUST see our students as customers, and we must provide them with critical thinking skills. This may mean that we should abandon some sacred cows, such as forcing students to purchase unreasonably priced textbooks which only contain surface level information which may be obtained for free online. At the same time, we must demand that students come to class prepared, and are READY to be challenged.
  • Sep 25 2011: In short, I agree with your position. However, schools are businesses. It is just hard to convey to students that the product is an education, not just a piece of paper. I think that this expectation you are witnessing is proportional to the educational institution’s marketing efforts. It is unfortunate so much marketing has to go on. I suspect the same “you get out what you put in” is as true as when I went to school. Schools compete for the best students and this focus on the ultra elite students, seemingly at the exclusion of many other equally important long-term understanding of material indicators and evidence of hard work ethic. As unappealing as this would be to Socrates and the concept of a University, it is reality. All educators need to hold the line and truly prepare these kids for life, despite the costs. In the long run, that is what important.
    Kids today are being programmed to believe that whining and verbal criticism of people, processes and actions taken by the educational system is an acceptable alternative to doing the work, thinking, and problem solving necessary to come to the workplace with usable skills. Too much emphasis is placed on grades and not enough on understanding and long-term retention. Helicopter parents show kids that as long as they can make a convincing enough argument that something isn’t fair, or could be misinterpreted, or the teacher is wrong, that somehow actual performance and hard work seem secondary and good marks will be assigned. Guess what? Life is not fair.
    Two and three generations ago, hard work was a survival requirement. Now, working hard for you money is looked down upon. There is a perception that ‘making your money work for you’, leveraging your credit, taking risk, borrowing, and getting people to work for you rather than working yourself is the way of the upper class. Frightening!
    Graduates are not entitled to anything except life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The rest the must earn.
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      Sep 25 2011: There is value in much of what you have said. In education we are seeing a reflection of the entitlement society that is developing in the US as a whole. As you correctly stated the constitution tries to guarantee life, liberty, and the PURSUIT of happiness. It does not guarantee happiness just the chance to pursue it. I think of my students as my customers so that I make sure they are getting the best product I can give them. This thinking is certainly not limited to universities alone. I used to teach at a middle school and when we started failing students for not doing homework we were told that we the teachers were the problem not the students. I am sure it is the same across the board for all grades to some degree or another.
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    Sep 25 2011: Imagine that - A world in which time and energy is invested in the sum of knowledge (Rather than the value of wealth).

    As a student faced with such challenges,
    "If money is the root, I want the whole damn tree."
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    Sep 29 2011: A well written piece of instructional software will take into account the rate at which the student is progressing and adjust itself accordingly. Teacher-student interaction could be done via teleconferencing. Teleconferencing could also deliver a group experience.
  • Sep 28 2011: Just something I'd like to point out that may start a bigger debate later on down the line, who are the targeted consumers? I worry that well qualified consumers of the college education are being scammed out of what should rightly be their's due to hard financial situations and the influence of affirmative action affiliated programs and scholarships... Cheaper education should be the right of ALL, not just the minority.
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    Sep 26 2011: to be riped off in as many ways as possible
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    Sep 26 2011: I totally agree that education does not come easy. As a matter of fact, the most beneficial things for us do not come easy. Its like the old saying, "its easy to fail but hard to succeed"...

    Being a college student myself I'll speak from my own personal experience. It honestly does not help that they textbook industry (Mc-Graw Hill, Pearson Education and Houghton Post) is aprox a $10 billion industry (as of 2008 and you can research everything that I am saying so this wont sound like a conspiracy)...

    I'll be honest, most of the things that I learn or know about is from my own personal research and outside of the classroom. Grades in schools are not a reflection of one's intelligence and hard work(like it was in the 60's) but instead of methodology (in the sense of doing homework, classwork, extra credit etc)..There are many class where I've seen really, really intelligent people get B's where as others received A's because they are just good at taking test or they had time to do homework while others had to work.

    As a current college student I really feel like I'm being systematically cheated out of my money and cultivated to learn material that has been systematically structured a certain way to have conventional knowledge. When I was at UNLV for a semester I was really upset by about it. There was psych course that I had to take and we were told that we needed to buy the book because it came with a CD. Personally we did not need the book (I did not use the book to study and still managed to get A's on my exams(because the exams were from the notes not book) but I did need the book because some assignments were from the CD...Also the person who wrote the book taught at the school. Turns out most of the classes that I took did not require the book at all but yet we are told to buy books that we honestly will never use in the first place...if that's not corruption then I do not know what is.
  • Sep 26 2011: heck no! enough people already have been brought up to believe erroneously that they are geniuses and that the world would be better if only the other idiots would step aside and let them run it like it 'should' be run. this will only be made worse by adding 'the customer is always right'. going to uni is a priviledge, which must be earned and maintained. sure many students have expectations, and if those expectations don't live up to reality it is usually that the expectations were in error, not that the student has been wronged by their professor. also 'interesting' is a completely relative term. if a lecture is not interesting, perhaps the student is in the wrong place? i fell asleep once during a lecture in my university days... it wasn't the topic but that the theatre was just so comfortably warm! the one subject i didn't find interesting i left, and transferred to another subject.
  • Sep 26 2011: Education is not a commodity, but an intrinsic experience in each action. Ergo, a student is not so much a customer as any other human being.
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    Sep 26 2011: All education will soon be available online and will have a wide range of education software to choose from. Degrees will be awarded by comprehensive examinations at exam centers. The education software customer will expect to pass the exam after a course of study. The exams won't be easy. There won't be a "prestige" factor in attending a University any longer. High paying jobs will be the result of merit rather than connections.
    • Sep 26 2011: sounds nice. any reasoning to back that up? i could just as easily declare that all education will be unnecessary as robots will do everything...
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        Sep 26 2011: No evidence other than deduction from the tendency of the Internet to decentralize all forms of data movement, including knowledge into the mind coupled to a growing home schooling movement. The overhead of running a brick and mortar campus is putting education costs through the roof. A small fraction of that overhead would be required to administer digitized class work. Students could live at home, study at their own pace, research from their home computer. And course work could be made a lot more fun, even take on the attributes of a game. Seems like a no brainer to me.
        • Sep 27 2011: i appreciate you following up! that sounds like a good idea, but only if no more than a cursory appraisal is undertaken. let me explain...

          if you have "the course" on the internet, what you'll end up with is standardized, less capable, and fewer graduates. a human teacher adjusts the bar to suit the abilities of individual students, classes, and years, such that students who need help can get a tailored version, and especially capable students can be challenged. if there is no-one to adjust the course some will drop out finding it too hard, and others will finish early and turn off, never realising their potential.

          furthermore, education is more effective when it is a group experience. study groups and discussions are essential tools to aiding comprehension of the course material, as well as developing the broader perspective (thanks to the opportunity of being able to hear multiple takes and considerations from others) that will enable students to excel in their fields. researching from a computer also often takes longer, as students need to wade through all the unreliable sources to find accurate material, which is usually very long and technical. why have thousands of students all go through that when a single professor could do it and is better qualified to do so to boot?

          lastly, how would practical work be done at home? i certainly don't have the space for a rotary evaporator!
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    Sep 25 2011: Why not?
    Are not many unversities running on a profit based business model ?
    Being customer doesn't mean they are going to set their own regulation to run the university, in no industry it's happening, though awareness of customers about their rights are mounting pressure accross different industries to shape up those.

    But in case of universities (certification body not educational institute ) by treating students as customer will not solve the problem of education. Much more radical changes are needed if universities really want to educational institute.