Issues with student-as-customer model


The next time you seek medical care, know that the nurse taking your blood pressure could be among the 77% of nurses who lack the clinical skills to do the job. When you send your child off to school, it is worth noting that 75% of teachers graduate from college ill-prepared to manage and instruct a K-12 classroom.

The lack of preparedness of college grads for the world of work is not limited to nursing and teaching. The Fiscal Times reported widespread consensus among business leaders that recent college graduates are not prepared to contribute to their companies in meaningful ways.

There are many reasons to take a college class or earn a college degree. If one of the purposes of higher education is to serve society by helping to develop a competent workforce though, the evidence suggests that we are failing. As a college educator, I believe that this is where the “customer service” model of higher education has gotten us.

Problems with the student as customer model

Surveys of college and university administrators suggest that they tend to see students less as pupils to be guided and more as customers to be satisfied. This trend has been on the rise since the early 1980s with rising tuition and increased competition for students often cited as reasons.   

When students become customers, the onus becomes to give them what they want. Of course, like any customer, what they want is the biggest bang for their buck. For college students and their families, this translates into the best grades with the least amount of effort. As their buck has gotten larger, the research suggests that this is what they are getting.

Today’s college students are less engaged with their learning, studying less and are less literate than their predecessors, yet they earn higher grades. Over the past 40 years, “A” has replaced “C” as the most assigned grade at four-year schools. To be clear, college administrators are not engaging this model because they want to but because they feel they have to. 

The number of potential college students is declining due to population stagnation and the ongoing debate about the practical utility of a college degree. With fewer potential students paying more and more for their studies, administrators feel pressure to cave to student demands. Administrators pass this pressure on to faculty,  two-thirds of whom are not tenured and may feel little ability to push back. They assign less reading, grade less rigorously and have more lenient attendance policies. 

This may seem innocuous in the short term, but, as the data on recently graduated teachers and nurses show, what someone has learned in college matters. 

Potential solutions

Individual institutions have some capacity to push back against the customer service model of higher education and the grade inflation that results. The tendency is to blame today’s college students (who have been raised on participation trophies) for grade inflation, but, in reality, students do not assign grades; faculty do. While the average 18-year-old college student is clear about what they want, faculty — who are subject matter experts — should be the ones to decide what they need, and what they need is to have their work assessed accurately.

Faculty can stop assigning undeserved grades and administrators can support them by weighing student evaluations — the cornerstone of the student as customer paradigm — less in tenure decisions and salary advancement policies. Evaluations can also be completed earlier in the semester rather than the more common practice of having students complete them at the end when a good grade can implicitly feel like a tradeoff for a good evaluation. There may even be some efficacy to strategies like Princeton’s anti-grade inflation policy, which was abandoned in 2014 largely because students and parents did not like it. 

Real reform, though, must decrease the pressure on schools to cave to students’ implicit or explicit grade demands by drastically decreasing the price tag of a college degree. Legislation like one recently re-introduced by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Alex Padilla (D-California), which would provide tuition-free college for 80% of U.S. families could go a long way towards this. 

If students are not paying exorbitantly for degrees, schools will have the agency to consider the impact on another “customer” of higher education: society at large. 

To be sure, there are aspects of good customer service that students are entitled to. Students should be treated with respect, given clear guidance and provided the supports they need to succeed. They also have the right to expect to be treated not just fairly but equitably.

However, if the needs of the future patient who the student will care for and the child that the future teacher will teach are to be considered as they should, customer service must end there.

About the Author

Mark Dennis
Mark Dennis is a writer, educator and somatic therapist who lives and works in Northern California. He teaches psychology at Sacramento City College. His essays have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed and Community College Daily.
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