Getting The ‘Customer Model’ Out Of Education

Jeff Bryant

Recently New York Times columnist Frank Bruni lodged a complaint about college students who “have come to act as customers” in the higher education system.

He argues that because many colleges now feature rich amenities – from sushi bars to water parks – and opportunities for students to have more of a say in how they are educated, that a “customer model” has turned higher education into en endeavor where the focus is on what students have come to expect, “not what is expected of them.”

Instead seeing a focus on “academic rigor” and “intensive effort,” he finds most college students “regard colleges as providers of goods that are measurable and of services that should meet their specifications.”

In some ways, he’s probably right. But it’s not the students’ fault. It’s ours.

Practically their entire academic life, college students have heard schools need to be in step with the needs of businesses and the economy. They’re told their education is “an investment” which will get them a “return” as an adult. The language of education policy is now saturated in business principals of efficiency, standards, and productivity.

In K-12, school superintendents now call themselves CEOs, and parents are being called customers. The latest policy fads – such as “school choice” and “the money should follow the child” – add to students’ and parents’ expectations that education is more a private pursuit than a public good and that they’d better get what they want for their money.

If Bruni would just notice what his college alma mater, the University of North Carolina, is doing he would see how the students he criticizes are getting their cues from adults. With Margaret Spellings, the former US Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, as the new president governing the entire UNC system, a much more business-minded mentality will preside over higher education in the Tarheel State.

As Zoë Carpenter explains in The Nation, “At the Department of Education, Spellings tried to bring the focus on performance metrics and accountability that drove No Child Left Behind in higher-education policy. She convened a Commission on the Future of Higher Education, whose final report referred to students as ‘consumers,’ and lauded elements of the for-profit education industry for embracing ‘an aggressive, outcomes-based approach.'”

Confronted with this new paradigm where a customer model now dominates people’s expectations, what seems to bother Bruni the most is that somehow the students are getting it easier than they should and getting accommodations they don’t deserve.

But the truth is, they’re getting screwed.

To see the ultimate example of how business thinking can infect education with the worst possible practices, see what has been transpiring in the most consumer-driven education option of them all: for-profit colleges.

As Carpenter writes, “Ironically, it’s the for-profit industry that has failed most egregiously.”

When the independent news agency ProPublica looked at a portion of the for-profit college sector, those that were accredited by Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), it found a litany of scandal and fraud where students were victims and not the self-indulged brats Bruni worries over.

According to the report, these for-profit institutions chalked up the worst graduation rates and highest student college loan median debt levels and loan nonrepayment rates for graduates of any national accreditation agency.

Another report on these scam schools, from the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, found

  • 82 percent, 554 out of 676 institutions, are in the bottom one-third nationally for three-year repayment rates.
  • 62 percent, 389 out of 628 institution, are in the bottom one-third nationally in terms of earnings 10 years after enrollment for individuals receiving federal aid.
  • 57 percent, 362 out of 632 institutions, are in the bottom one-third nationally in terms of the percentage of students who received federal aid and are earning more than a high school graduate 10 years after entering school.

The institutional malfeasance characterizing this subsection of for-profit higher ed is typical for the entire industry.

Another new study, this one by David Halperin for Republic Report, finds “Seven of America’s ten biggest for-profit college companies, which collectively received about $8 billion dollars in taxpayer money last year, have in recent months and years been under investigation or sued by federal and state law enforcement agencies for deceptive business practices.”

Another finding from that report: “The US Department of Education reported that 72 percent pf the for-profit college programs it analyzed produced graduates who, on average, earned less than did high school dropouts. A May 2016 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that for-profit college students, graduates and dropouts combined, earned less after leaving school then they did before they enrolled.”

The Obama administration has introduced a plan to write off the debts of students who were defrauded by for-profit colleges. The plan estimates, according to Politco, one out of every four dollars in loans to for-profit schools offering associate’s degrees or certificates could be eligible for forgiveness. The estimate for for-profits offering bachelor’s degrees is one out of every five dollars in loans.

The editorial board of the New York Times calls Obama’s plan “long overdue,” but also long overdue is some enforcement of a dividing line over education and the need to make a buck.

There’s really nothing ironic, as Carpenter states, about the failure of these schools. It makes perfect sense. Failure is an essential part of business; most businesses, in fact, fail.

But failure is not what we want for education. And if what we want is for students to stop seeing themselves as customers, as Bruni argues, then we have to stop thinking about schools as businesses.

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