Letters to the Editor

The Problem With College? Too Few Customers

March 14, 2010

To the Editor:

The main problem with the education system is that there are too many students and too few customers. A student is a person to whom something is done (the student is taught); a customer is a person for whom something is done (a customer is provided a learning experience). Students take it as a given that they are acted upon and controlled by professors, who in turn will judge them on their performance. Students never question the fact that they pay the same for an F as an A. Customers, on the other hand, would find it incredible if a service provider charged the same amount for a failed service as for a top-level service—to say nothing of expecting to be paid a second time to overcome the original failure.

Students have been conditioned to believe that they bear the entire responsibility for the results of poor service—even if it was delivered in a manner inconsistent with their learning style, in a method pedagogically proven to be the least efficient, and to people who were inadequately prepared by their previous service providers. Customers would look at this situation and either demand refunds from the previous service provider or question the quality control of the current provider. A class-action lawsuit would not be out of the question.

Students give little thought to paying $2,000 each to sleep through courses for which they are forced to sit for hours at a time in hard seats in auditoriums jammed with other students. Customers would instead download free podcasts from iTunes U and—curled up in their own warm beds with their iPods and earbuds—listen comfortably as the same material was presented by top faculty members from MIT, Harvard, or Stanford.

For as long as students continue to be the majority population in the educational system, the situation will continue to worsen. It will not be until students are transformed into customers that new forces, ideas, and methods will be developed that will improve the effectiveness of individual learning while lowering the cost. At that point the focus will shift from the zero-sum student perspective (how do I get more money for my education?) to the productivity-based customer perspective (how do I get more education for my money?)

Bill Sams
Executive in Residence
Ohio University
Athens, Ohio