what kind of business is this?

I never liked the idea of comparing an institution of higher education to a business.  My students are certainly not my customers or clients.

Even without our own thinking about the business of education this way, some of our students come to us with this attitude.  They say to us (literally and very directly), “I deserve an A because I paid for this class.”  Sometimes they think the professor owes them the grade that they really “want” and for which they paid x amount of dollars.  And when they don’t get what they want, they want to see the “manager.”

I do agree with the education-as-business model insofar as that we must be held accountable for what we bring to our students.  Professor should continue to learn and bring new ideas as well as enthusiasm to the table.  We should get to know our students and be innovative about the way we teach them.  Also, the degree that the students earn should indicate skills learned and translate to real-life needs.  So it’s a good thing that recently for-profit institutions have been under governmental scrutiny (see my previous post on this).

Beyond this, however, education-as-business model is dangerous because it doesn’t acknowledge the primary difference between an educational institution and what we typically call “business.”

Let me explain.

Recently I heard someone make a great point about how these days businesses sell more than products or services: They sell “experiences.”   She gave Disney World as an example.  And as someone who has been to Disney World twice already and thoroughly enjoyed it, I believe it!  It is expensive, but the experience is indeed magical – and I try to relive it by looking at pictures from my visits.

When a student pays tuition, she is paying for a space, an opportunity to participate in the experience being offered at the college.  But there’s something very different between the college experience and the Disney World experience:  college asks the “client” to pay a lot of money and work very, very hard for an opportunity to learn while the latter asks the client to pay a lot of money and spend a lot of time in lines to experience the magic of It’s a Small World.  Sure, waiting in line for an hour is no easy task, but you can see the essential difference between the two experiences.

This requirement of hard work is what fundamentally differentiates us from other businesses.  Unfortunately, sometimes the hard work is the piece that students (and some parents) forget when they see higher education as a purchasable ticket to the next step. 

We must be held accountable – Accountability makes us better.  And we could learn a lot from the business sector.  But, in essence, we are not a business.  The student is NOT a customer.  I don’t sell anything to my students.

What I do have is an invitation to join a community of learners, to participate in a learning process, and to take a journey in self-discovery.  (And in the process, I also get to join a community of learners, participate in a learning process, and take a journey in my own self-discovery.)  This may all sound corny and cheesy.  (To be honest, even as I write it out, it sounds corny and cheesy to me too.)  Still, it is what it is.  And this is what I believe college offers. No matter how much money you pay for an experience, if you don’t bring IT, then you can’t really “experience” it.

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