Have it your way: Consumer education

Students are barnstorming the ivory tower of education, but at a heavy price.

Haven’t you heard? Public higher education is going private! The intersection of the public and private sector, in terms of education, is all the rage today, and students are evolving with the trend. Today, universities and students are more concerned with their bottom lines. And who can blame them? In an ownership society, we’ve got to look out for No. 1.

In theory this trend makes a lot of sense. By viewing students as commodities, universities are more apt to respond quickly to issues of accountability, efficiency and practicality – lest students “decide with their feet” to go somewhere else.

This move toward privatization, however, comes with a heavy price. Under the model, a majority of the cost falls on the shoulders of students. Because of massive federal budget cuts and declining state funding, institutions of higher education increasingly are relying solely on tuition and fees to keep their engines running. Progressively more each year, students are taking out loans to cover the cost of their education, and these are middle-class students. Low-income students – whose access to private loans is severely limited – simply are being priced out of the game.

Should the nation buy into this student-as-consumer paradigm, and is it improving academia? Because students who are able to afford a higher education are borrowing more to pay for college, they are demanding that courses and teaching style be tailored specifically to their desires. Universities are responding by attempting to establish themselves as premier institutions to receive a diploma. (Did someone say strategic positioning?)

Already Minnesota sees the friction this causes between students and professors. At Hamline University a controversy arose when two students didn’t like the way a professor taught a class, yet still were able to receive a grade independent of his discretion.

More than anything else, the move toward privatization in public education harms students. It distances them from the educational process. Much like you grab a burger at McDonald’s because you want something fast and easy, students are becoming less involved and just want their McDiploma.