Treating students as consumers undermines higher education’s mission


The Appalachian Online

Laney Ruckstuhl

Those in the Appalachian community appalled by the conspicuous lack of video game equipment at the library need worry no more. Your university has heard you and created a new game room in Belk Library where students can play or rent video games.

It truly is a shame that the space is being used for this rather than for more important purposes, like say, an open bar for faculty. Once they get news about the new game room in the library, they will certainly need it.

Mockery is a natural, and appropriate, response to this news, but there is a serious aspect to it as well. A petition is now circulating calling for the closing of the game room on the grounds that having a game room in the library is “contrary to the goals of our university.”

Although some commenting on the petition raised questions of how the resources devoted to the game room could have better been spent, the issue here is really more symbolic than anything else.

For the past year or so, I have spoken to a number of professors about their concern over trends taking hold both at Appalachian State and higher education more broadly.

A theme I have heard on a number of occasions is the fear that higher education is the transition from a public-minded institution with the purpose of instilling values of citizenship to much commercial, corporatized entities.

One aspect of that process is especially relevant in the case of the game room: the idea of students as consumers.

Colleges are increasingly behaving like businesses trying to meet the demands of customers by, well, giving them what they want.

A January 2013 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that college spending on amenities makes some sense, given that the types of amenities offered played an important role in where many students chose to enroll.

Naturally, the increase in resources toward those amenities often means a reduction in resources for academic functions.

Findings like these have been echoed in research for some time now.  Examining college spending between 2000 and 2010, the Delta Cost Project reported in its  2012 study that spending on the “academic mission” at four-year non-profit universities had gone down in 2010..

This entire situation frustrates and angers many professors for entirely understandable reason. In many ways, it threatens the idea sense of purpose that many educators have about their jobs.

So they seem to understand this all too well, but many students may not see what the problem is. After all, it is only a game room.

And in terms of individual cost, it probably is not that bad. But insofar as the introduction of the game room is representative of a highly negative trend in higher education, it is a big deal.

There are so many different,systemic forces that affect the lives of students, both in how much we pay and the quality of education we get: public funding cuts, administrative growth and the growing reliance on non-tenure track faculty.

While some students may be familiar with these things, my suspicion is that many are not, and certainly may not see the connections between them.

That puts some pressure on all of us as students to become more aware of the current system and how it affects us, especially right here at Appalachian.

In that way, student interests and the interests of faculty are closely aligned. They are here to teach and research, and we are here to benefit from that teaching and research. That, and not entertainment, is the fundamental reason we are all here.

Of course, this does not mean that we need to throw out every single amenity we have, just that we need to take a look at what is going on around us and say what our priorities as students are.

One of the more disturbing realities the NBER study reveals is that the investment in amenities comes from a belief that this is what students want. The study found that a desire for increased investment in academics was largely limited to what the study refers to as “high-achieving students.”

So part of the solution to the problems is for students to decide what we value. It doesn’t mean that we have to give up every single amenity that exists, but we should firmly decide and clearly communicate that we are students above all else.

Kevin Griffin, a junior journalism major from Madison, is an opinion writer.