College students have evolved from clients to consumers

June 06, 2005

University Park, Pa. -- Over the past two generations, the marketplace forces in higher education have resulted in the evolution of college students into consumers, affecting the nature of learning and favoring affluent students who can afford academic resources, said a Penn State researcher.

Before the 1960s, the college student's role was that of a client, seeking the expertise and knowledge of the faculty, said Roger L. Geiger, distinguished professor of higher education. But during the 1960s and 1970s, the situation began to change perceptibly when student activists and certain administrators made significant changes to their college's curriculum, such as eliminating required courses and adding more "relevant" courses demanded by students. Also, policies such as mandatory attendance and comprehensive final exams were relaxed.

Geiger is author of the recently published book, "Knowledge & Money: Research Universities and the Paradox of the Marketplace" (Stanford University Press). He studied trends affecting 99 research universities in the United States, public and private, and their expenditures, the total of which comprise 1 percent of the U.S. economy.

The tilt toward the consumer philosophy regarding students was reflected in the addition of student course evaluations as part of the assessment of job performance, according to Geiger. In accordance with responsibility-centered management, certain colleges allowed students to influence school budgets via their course selections.

"When students objected to taking courses teaching only Western heritage and material by dead European white males, the colleges eventually gave in and cut back those courses," he added.

"The dawn of the 1980s, with the heightened commercialization of college research, actually witnessed curriculum stiffening as some past excesses were rectified and as universities, in keeping with their growing selectivity, sought to project authentic images of academic excellence," said Geiger. "However, the pervasive market power of students continued to transform the curriculum from within. As student satisfaction became a more highly valued goal, student wishes became more consequential."

Enhanced competition for the ablest students under marketplace conditions has resulted in some improvement to undergraduate education, still the top priority for America's colleges and universities. At the same time, this "arms race" for students has greatly promoted student consumerism and thus further weakened control over student learning, according to Geiger.

"Elite universities not only grasp this situation but ostensibly try to counteract it through financial aid programs and the recruitment of underrepresented minorities," Geiger said. "Nevertheless, high-achieving, affluent students have increasingly filled the places at highly selective universities and enjoyed the presumed subsequent earnings advantage."

This phenomenon has been accentuated by relative reductions in state funding for public universities. This in turn has necessitated steep tuition hikes that further limit the field to students who are both very smart and very well off.

"The competition for students, for good or ill, has bred consumerism -- a reversal of attitude from students as clients, fortunate to attend a particular university, to students as customers who must be pleased with a variety of amenities -- from upscale dormitories to mall-like shopping facilities -- that have little to do with actual education," Geiger said.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017