I have no problem with seeing students as consumers of education, perhaps because I don’t think that the identity of “consumer” forecloses other kinds of relationships. I can be a friend and a customer of a store owner. I can be a member of a neighborhood or a community alongside someone whose services I buy. I can be a patient but also a consumer of medical services, and have those roles not be identical.
So someone can be both my student, with all the complexities of education as an ideal, and yet also a person who is paying for my services as a teacher.
So I tend to look at the debate over accreditation and wonder why some of the people who feel most intensely about the need for far more stringent, consistent and governmentally-enforced standards of educational accreditation are not general activists committed to extensive consumer protection and regulatory enforcement. You can flip this, if you like: many consumer-protection advocates don’t extend their arguments to the service economy.
I’m generally wary of strong regulatory regimes around consumer rights, however. In my view, for most services and products, very precise standards that need regular legal or bureaucratic enforcement become a serious burden on the adaptibility and efficiency of markets. The consequences of unsafe products need to be fairly extreme before I agree that strong regulation is needed. So guaranteeing the safety of foodstuffs and medicine strikes me as a valid responsibility. Toys perhaps. Machinery whose public use makes an unsafe product risky to large numbers of people, like airplanes and cars. At the other end of the spectrum, labelling what cultural products are suitable for children to consume: not at all important. Routinized inspection of a wide range of products for safety: not important. Extensive governance of professional services, perhaps through some kind of regulated system of certification? Not a good idea.
What do I think is a good idea with medicine, for example? Information, and lots of it. I want to know everything about a medical professional whose services I might use. I want to know how many people they see, whether they have a high rate of error or failure, what their relationships with pharmaceutical companies might be, what procedures they perform most often, and so on. I want the same information about lawyers, psychiatrists, financial advisors. Transparency to the fullest degree. Moreover, I want to know everything about the professional associations to which someone belongs: how do they maintain standards, what do they do if misconduct is reported, and so on.
This strikes me as highly applicable to educational institutions, even private ones. We should be even more transparent than we are. Our syllabi should be available online, maybe even a sample lecture or two, for all faculty. Virtually all financial data except for individual salaries should be available to anyone. And so on. The list of obligations I suggested at an AHA meeting for institutions admitting graduate students could be generalized as the obligations we owe all students. We should try a good deal harder to explain how we create and maintain standards, to demystify academia.
A lot of institutions will protest that a great deal of information is already available. I can’t be the only professor who was riveted by a 2006 story in the New York Times that suggested that an institution that increases its tuition instantly sees an improvement in the quality of its applicant pool, regardless of whether it changes anything about the quality of the services offered. That suggested to me that a great many consumers of higher education in the United States are using price as a very crude and informationally-impoverished signal of quality. That also suggests to me that all of the information available already isn’t helping consumers much to meaningfully gauge whether higher education is worth the price. Or even, in some cases, whether there will be a price: the recent change in Swarthmore and other elite institutions’ loan policies brought home to me once again that many potential applicants probably do not fully grasp that the hefty price tag won’t apply to their family due to lower incomes, that many students pay discounted rates.
The worth of higher education doesn’t have to be crassly economic (though there’s nothing wrong, in my view, with students and their families asking what the long-term payoff might be). It can be about intangibles: about citizenship, values, critical thought, adulthood, social networks, however you choose to come at it. But in all of those cases, we may not be anywhere nearly as transparent as we could be.
So transparency, yes. A regulatory machine administering tests, enforcing rigorous common standards, hauling professionals up before a bureaucratic star chamber every four years? No.