Magazine article University Business

The "Rugged Individualist" versus the "Ivory Tower": How the Consumerist Paradigm Threatens Higher Education in America

Magazine article University Business

The "Rugged Individualist" versus the "Ivory Tower": How the Consumerist Paradigm Threatens Higher Education in America

Article excerpt

DEEP ADMIRATION FOR the self-made men and women of business is all but encoded into Americans' DNA. This is all well and good. Where would we be if innovators like the late Steve Jobs were reviled instead of admired? Where would our colleges and universities be without the businesslike approach to management that has become their hallmark?

For decades now, America's tendency to look for business-based approaches--to see things in terms of clients and customers, products and prices, inputs and outputs--has helped universities conduct the business side of higher education with Fortune 500-like efficiency. But when it comes to the process of obtaining an education and achieving success later in life, what might be called our consumerist paradigm simply has no place.

Students, after all, are not entitled consumers, but individuals with varying levels of talent, discipline, creativity, and composure. If colleges and universities fail to honor this reality, the long-term consequences for higher education and society could be profound. In fact, we are already beginning to see hints of how the creeping influence of consumerism could slowly bring an unhelpful mantra to campus--"the customer is always right."

As a case in point, take the consumer-fraud class actions filed in August 2011 by former students at New York Law School and Thomas M. Cooley School of Law (Mich.). In this provocative litigation, seven graduates accused the two schools of, in effect, a bait-and-switch, arguing that they inflated graduates' employment and salary statistics in a bid to woo new students.

Other American law schools now face the threat of similar suits (at least 15 threatened class actions, at last count). If even a few of these prove lucrative for the plaintiff, the scope and scale of such actions is bound to expand as higher ed marketing practices from A to Z are subjected to the microscope.

A few years ago, these kinds of "educational malpractice suits" would have been dead on arrival at the courthouse door. This is because American courts generally adhered to a black-letter principle that schools are not guarantors of student outcomes. To assume otherwise, it was understood, was to undermine the notion that education has value for its own sake, regardless of material outcomes. …

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