Are students consumers of education?

Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

University Discounters - the source for all things higher education is a tremendous shopping experience for the student at heart. As you walk in, the first department, degrees, is teeming with choices. Although all roughly the same cost, each choice belongs to a different food group. There are the degrees in engineering, which are sort of like a salad - healthy and long-lasting, but rather unexciting. Then there are the degrees in the liberal arts - chocolates that taste great, but are less filling in the long-term. Degrees in social science are like a sandwich - a happy medium.

After that department, we head on over to the “experiences” department. Many destinations await in the study abroad aisle, and there are plenty of volunteering opportunities in the service aisle. After this is the extracurriculars department, which spans multiple aisles from sports to pre-professional clubs. Put all of these into a nice shopping basket and go to the cashier to check out - warning, there are no returns and no exchanges.

It is important to note though that customers should not expect any help in selection. University Discounters does not provide personal shopping assistants to its clientele - that would be a costly attack on the store’s bottom line. Every person who walks into the front door should know what they want, of course, and the store conveniently places expensive items at eye level.

While this extended metaphor was perhaps hyperbole (and also allowed me to compare the social sciences to sandwiches), it raises an important question: what relationship do we, as students attending universities in the twenty-first century, hold with our institutions?

Thirty years ago, schools were clearly in control of the curriculum, providing a pre-defined experience for every student with little ability to design programs of study. Students were for the most part powerless - tuition dollars were a relatively small source of revenue, especially considering the lower expenses of that era.

Today, the relationship has been reversed. Tuition dollars are a critical source of revenue for universities, which use them as unrestricted funding to pay for administrative costs not coverable by endowment spending. Students now have broad latitude over the design of their majors and degree programs, even when those students are not sure what they will need someday.

Whether we like it or not, higher education has moved closer to a consumer model, and we need to be aware and address some of its underlying flaws.

First, there is an incredible pull among all higher education institutions to connect learning directly with the skills needed for the job force. We are fortunate to be among the minority of students who attend schools that have largely ignored this trend. That is not the case with most institutions, which are under pressure from career offices, alumni, students and parents to ensure that the knowledge provided is practical and directed toward the job a student intends to take upon graduation.

This nationwide trend creates two problems: first, students often do not know where they will be after graduation (and thus the job training received may not be relevant) and second, whatever choice they do make is unlikely to be the same in the long-term. Our generation is fluidly moving between jobs in different industries, and the skills needed for such flexibility do not come from practical programs directed at narrow industries.

There is a danger that American productivity will be harmed if such a trend manifests itself. Industries are constantly changing, whether at the frenetic pace of the science and technology industry or more slowly in construction. But all workers are constantly forced to adapt to new changes in their work. To do so, they will need the broad foundation provided by a strong college curriculum to assist in the transition process.

A second concern with the consumer model is that every part of the student experience must provide instant gratification. To a certain degree, the demand for high quality services has pushed the cost of education higher. The funding for a gorgeous campus has to come from somewhere.

The risk can also be seen in academics, where there is a constant push to lower standards. For instance, a professor was removed last month from the introductory biology sequence at Louisiana State University because too few of her students were passing the course requirements. The solution was to lower the standards to ensure a healthy graduation (and revenue) stream.

Practical training and instant gratification did not make America the economic behemoth it is today. The consumer model of higher education is certainly not new, but as the demands on these institution increase, we risk destroying the very strengths that our system of universities provide - broadly educated graduates. We cannot act as if universities are Wal-Marts of knowledge, but instead we must see them entirely in a different class, a breed to be protected for eternity.