On Campus

Students as consumers: You don't always get what you pay for

EXCERPT "What's Wrong With University: And How to Make It Work for You Anyway"

There’s a story about the big private American colleges that some academics like to tell as a way of attacking the notion that their quality of education is invariably better. Students (or more likely their parents) pay tens of thousands of dollars per year in tuition. Many of them come from families with so much money, it makes career professors look working class. And that can erode the position of respect a little bit. So when the grades come back and unhappy students show up at the professor’s office, it’s a little different than what you might be used to.

They aren’t just disappointed and trying to beg an extra mark or two. Those students show up with all the fury of outraged consumers, and say things like, “I’m not paying $30,000 a year to get a B minus!” And they mean it. And the saddest part is the institution has to bow, at least a little bit, to these pressures. Grade inflation becomes a problem.

Fortunately we don’t have that kind of problem in Canada just yet, but the tension still exists as an undercurrent. Prior to university, in high school and earlier, the relationship is pretty obvious. Students are basically wards of the government while they are in public school. But come university (or college), things change. Now you’re paying money to be there. Shouldn’t you have the right to demand something? It feels wrong somehow that you are still interacting with the system as though it owns you, as though you should feel grateful if you can just keep your head above water. And that is wrong. But it is also wrong to assume you are entitled to good grades just because you paid to be there. Where’s the balance?

Certification students probably have the most natural grasp of the balance as it currently exists. If you think of university as similar to any other licensing process, such as the place where you go to get your driver’s license, most of the rest comes fairly clear. Of course you aren’t entitled to pass your driver’s test just because you pay the evaluation fee. You still need to meet all the appropriate standards, and if you don’t, you fail, even though you are “the customer.” Same thing at university. But university doesn’t just function as a licensing office, it’s also the driving school. So when you fail your test, does that mean you just didn’t meet the standard, or does it suggest, perhaps, that you weren’t adequately prepared to pass? And if so, doesn’t that suggest a justifiable complaint?

This is where an academic perspective comes in handy. You are paying for an education, and if it isn’t adequately delivered, then of course you have a right to complain. Even if you’d rather not learn today, you’ve got to realize that it’ll only cost you tomorrow. If anything happens to go wrong, you won’t be compensated with free grades, despite the odd notion some students develop that the university “owes” them. The university owes you every reasonable opportunity to succeed, but if the education and evaluation processes fail, the university does not owe you the benefit of the doubt that you know what you’re doing. You won’t get a default A just because your class got all messed up, any more than you’ll get your driver’s license by default just because your test got all messed up. At most you’ll get a do over.

If your professor is scattered, ill prepared, neglectful, or just plain absent, then of course you have a justifiable complaint and you should express it. Don’t wait all year then expect free grades. I promise it won’t work. Complain early, complain loudly, complain respectfully, and make your case. University seems so important (and it is) that students are sometimes amazed it’s even possible for a course to go off the rails, but when there are hundreds of courses offered every year, odds dictate at least something crazy will happen. Some professor is going to get hit by a bus. Or the one classroom with a vital technical resource will be off-line. Or the university actually went and hired someone who is blatantly incompetent. The best hiring process in the world will fail sometimes, and it’s sad, but it does happen. Then you get to act like an outraged consumer.

Excerpted from “What’s Wrong With University: And How to Make It Work for You Anyway”, © 2007 by Jeff Rybak. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press. The book is available here.

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