College Students Are Not Customers

This idiotic political shorthand needs to die, once and for all.

Students are Students.
Students, not customers. 

Photo by wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

In what is apparently a vogue of Republican state legislators exercising misplaced vendettas against college professors, Iowa Sen. Mark Chelgren recently made headlines when he introduced Senate File 64, “an Act relating to the teaching effectiveness and employment of professors” at Iowa public institutions.

Each year, the bill stipulates, any faculty who fails “to attain a minimum threshold of performance” based solely on student evaluations would be automatically fired regardless of rank or tenure. Lest you think that firing professors based on a questionable assessment metric affords them too much dignity, rest assured there is more. Some beleaguered governing body would also publish the names of the five professors with the lowest acceptable evaluations, and the student body would then “vote on the question of whether any of the five professors will be retained.”

In what has to be the most deadpan interview in the history of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Chelgren said:

There doesn’t seem to be any qualification where the professor understands that when they leave at the end of the school year, they’re leaving with a couple hundred thousand dollars, but that the students they’re teaching are paying these huge amounts of money to be there… Do I think that students who…are spending thousands of dollars to get an education are qualified to make those decisions? Absolutely. Why wouldn’t a student be qualified to make those kinds of determinations? They’re the ones paying the money.

Chelgren’s proposed legislation is in many ways a joke. First, the average salary of a tenured associate professor at the University of Iowa is not “hundreds of thousands” of dollars, but hovers around $80,000. Second, anyone who has ever heard the word “adjunct” knows full well that many Iowan professors make far less than that. They don’t need a poor man’s Survivor to get booted because of their student evaluations, since that happens to adjuncts all the time. Besides, I honestly don’t think that most students—especially not eminently practical Iowans—would want to do this to their fellow human beings.

Though we can sigh in relief that this bill appears to be dead already, there is still one deadly serious aspect of SF 64 and its sister legislation in North Carolina, whose goal is also to unemploy as many professors as possible (a goal, by the way, that is already taking care of itself without any help). And that is the adage, repeated by both Chelgren and North Carolina’s Tom McInnis—and, really, innumerable other higher-ed meddlers—that American universities need to be better at meeting the needs of their customers.

If given the benefit of the doubt, these assertions have some merit: College today is far too expensive. But let’s leave aside the fact that ballooning tuition does not, I repeat, does not, go to professors’ imaginary $200,000 salaries. Faculty are by and large co-victims, along with students, in the cratering of the American university system. Scaring the beejezus out of professors is largely redundant, and the GOP’s thirst for their blood is ideological.

But college students are not customers. That analogy needs to die. It needs to be drowned in the world’s largest bathtub. It needs a George R.R. Martin–esque bloodbath of a demise.

Legitimate research has determined that student evaluations of professors are biased, and so their “customer ratings” aren’t fair. Legitimate research also indicates that while professorial popularity and effectiveness do overlap, one does not immediately signify or correlate with the other. Further, most students don’t actually view themselves as customers, because they know how education works and actually want to get one.

But let’s ignore all this, and just reductio to some absurdum. If a university is a customer-service-oriented business—like, say, a restaurant—this means that the customer’s pleasurable experience (and thus continuing patronage) is the sole aim of the university. It does not matter, then, how much or how little the customer learns about a given area of study, because she is “always right.”

When, for example, a diner at a restaurant pairs tilapia with zinfandel, and then raises a holy fit about how disgusting her tilapia tastes, the manager has little choice but to restrain the irate sommelier and comp the food, even though it is the customer’s fault the food was “bad.” The staff would not dare suggest the customer try a different wine, because that rude attitude would be yet more fodder for a scathing Yelp review; e.g.,  “If I could give this place negative stars, I would!”

Imagine how the Yelp template would work in college. Despite the “sommelier”—in this case the professor—strongly recommending that the “customer” purchase the Chem 101 textbook for Chem 101, the customer, being always right and in possession of the money, decides instead to purchase the textbook for Abnormal Psych 500 because it “looks better.” Then, when it’s time for midterms (our customer has not attended a single lecture—she’s paid her money, after all!), our customer notices that none of the exam questions match anything she’s read. Since she’s paid many thousands of dollars for this course, she is, as the customer, fully entitled to both an A and a full refund. And if her professor, TA, adviser, the registrar, and the provost don’t issue her a profuse apology, it’s zero stars. Fire everyone!

Wait, what did you say? This scenario is absurd, you say? It is, and it has no bearing on reality—not even the most entitled student would act this way, and nobody would feel the need to kowtow to her if she did, precisely because students aren’t customers.

If students are customers, then the university is a business. A business’s only goal is to succeed, as in make the largest profit possible, which it usually does by purveying the cheapest product it can at the highest price customers will pay. In this model, tuition should be as high as the school can get away with, and all courses should cater purely to the tastes of the lowest common denominator of the customer base. In practice, it follows that each class should be five minutes long, taught by holograms of Rihanna, and consist entirely of self-graded multiple-choice tests composed in emoji. (Lest you think that for-profit university “businesses” utilize the model just fine, I’d recommend you Google “Corinthian Colleges” and perhaps “Axact.”)

Education is neither analogous to customer service nor does it need an analogous paradigm at all. It is its very own paradigm, one that has been established since before Socrates patiently nudged Glaucon into the light.

By the very nature of what they are signing up to do, college students are not always right, and since customers are always right … well, you know how a syllogism works. Thus the nonprofit university should not be acting like a corporation. That even today’s public universities do act like corporations should be infuriating to state legislators. Instead, they are doubling down, using these blatant category errors as an excuse to run professors out on a rail, all in the name of “customer service” to students who do not yet view themselves as customers. It’s not rhetoric to say that college students are not customers and that the university is not a business. This is not an angry proclamation. It is a statement of bland, indisputable truth.