Commodification of Education

A college education is the only “consumer good” that works only as well
as the “consumer” himself does. No matter how much you know or don’t
know about a car, a toaster, or a computer, it will work as long as you
follow the instructions, no matter whether you are a dean or a
dunderhead. “Education” depends partly on the quality of the teacher
and the receptiveness of the sender, or, if you want to be “consumer
good-y” about it, the “transmitter” and the “receiver.” But taking a
mechanistic view of education (“I’ll buy what you’re selling.”) is
ignorant, and demonstrates the fallacy of thinking that education can
be “purchased” whole and injected into people as long as they have the
money. This concept reminds me of the company that sells “Books by the
Yard” to people (and restaurants) who want to look smart but don’t have
the time to work at it.

The idea that no students should be flunked out of college is part of
the “consumer good” fallacy: “I paid for it, so I’d better get an A!”
(I’ve heard that in person…) In fact, if colleges really took
education seriously, they might think about flunking a few MORE
students, those who are spending their time, well I won’t go into that,
but you get the picture. That would certainly make at least a few
people sit up and take notice. Tie scholarships to GPA? Why not?
(Unintended consequence: More grade inflation, probably.) When you
think about it, even Ivy League exclusivity might be enhanced (as if
that were needed) if more students were cut after freshman year. Like
in the military.

This is the unintended consequence of presenting college as a consumer
good: Higher ed no longer really says (with a few exceptions), “Here’s
what we think you should know” and then challenges students to come up
to that standard; it says, “What would you like to know?” and tries to
fulfill “consumer” desires (which is where advertising, marketing,
focus groups, and so on come in.) Education is tough, challenging,
often confusing, and frustrating; “edutainment” is easy, accommodating,
reassuring, and nicely packaged for purchase. Who could fail at that?
Recall that the old-fashioned way of referring to new college alumni
was as having “been” graduated: that is, the institution determined
their worthiness for a diploma. Now, students “graduate” as if the
college had nothing that much to do with it. A minor point, but, as
Samuel Johnson said, “Speak, that I may see thee.”

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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