who are our customers?

It is becoming more and more common to hear about the “customers” of higher education. I will go on record, unsurprisingly, as saying that I do not like this language. However, since it is becoming so common, I think it’s worth reflecting too on who these customers are, and also what the product is that they’re purchasing. This is both philosophically important and practically so with respect to grade inflation, one of my ongoing concerns.

The presumption when this is raised is often that the customers are the students in the room. Hence we are to deliver a satisfactory product to those students who have registered for our classes. And, when it comes to grading, a “satisfactory product” often ends up meaning an A. This becomes all the more so when the syllabus is conceptualized as a contract between professor and student, such that adequate completion earns the full payment, the A. I far prefer adequacy to earn a B- or C, and exceeding adequacy to earn grades higher than that.

But I digress. Let me suggest that our customer is actually The Public — not its individual components, not the student body as a whole, not the alumni and donors, not the taxpayers, certainly not whichever students happened to register for a given course. For public and private universities alike, tuition dollars cover only a fraction of the cost of education, and sometimes (as at UNC) a very small fraction. But more importantly, virtually every university has a public mission and claims institutional, financial, and moral responsibility for that mission. So as we create, communicate, and disseminate knowledge, we should be thinking about the collective public as our customer, not about the students. In many cases we may serve our customer better by being more demanding and less accommodating to the students.

Finally, let me point out that even if you reject my case above, what we are supposed to be “selling” is education and knowledge — not grades or credentials. So serving the students appropriately often involves being less accommodating than we sometimes are!

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

18 thoughts on “who are our customers?”

  1. You might be interested in, if you have not already read, Tim Clydesdale’s book “First Year Out.” He makes an argument compatible with the student-as-consumer position. I often assign it to intro students to get them to do a little reflection on the topic.


  2. Interesting thoughts, but I think trying to identify “the” customer is a mistake. Indeed, one of my main concerns with higher ed is homogeneity — there is one standard model of what “product” should be delivered (more or less), very little experimentation, creativity, and diversity, minimal attempt at product differentiation, etc. “Education,” like food or heathcare or housing is not one thing, it’s different things, delivered to different “customers” by different producers in different ways. U of Phoenix is not Stanford. Nebraska is not Dartmouth. Big deal. Why should they be the same?


    1. I’ve read these arguments before too. Sadly, though, there is now very good evidence within institutions that grades are creeping upward, and have been for some time. Whether this is “inflation” or not is a different question, and probably not a very important one. But there is no reasonable doubt that:

      – Grades are increasing over time within institution;
      – The rate of increase is largely a function of institution type;
      – Inequality between instructors and departments is huge.


      1. So do you dispute that the average grade on an A, B, C scale should be a B among graduating seniors? On the logic that you have to maintain a C average to graduate, C cannot mathematically be the average grade beyond the first semester of freshman year. If you are complaining that there are too many As relative to Bs and Cs, I’m with you. If you think the modal grade ought to be a C and that a typical class ought to get a lot of Ds and Fs, I’m not. I’m also with you about trying to establish consistency of standards between people & departments.


      2. OW, I prefer a B- average, but otherwise am basically with you. And of course I don’t dispute the math of the C-average piece. But the head-in-the-sand idea that grades aren’t increasing is simply false, and the fact that there are wild inequalities that introduce huge perverse incentives should have everybody worried.

        I also think that the overall expectation that an A is the “reward” for adequate completion stifles our (my!) ability to encourage excellence.


  3. Dantae: thanks for the link. I’ve read these arguments before but they are well presented in this paper and should be read by all Scatterplotters.

    Jeremy – if you are on line, could you post a rotated version of the paper? It’s pretty hard to read it sideways on line. I own Acrobat Pro so downloaded & rotated for my own pleasure. I’ll be happy to send you a rotated copy of the paper if that is helpful, just email me.


  4. About customers and such, Andrew makes good points. More narrowly, with respect to viewing students as customers, they are customers in the sense that they pay us for our services. But they are a funny kind of customer, as it is not our job to give them what they want. And it is not even to force them to learn things they don’t know they need to know. Our most important job in the social system is to sort and stratify them. The stratification system is our most important “customer.”

    I don’t think any honest conversation about student-teacher relations can take place absent recognition of the tensions and contradictions inherent in our job between educating people and stratifying them.

    As Shamus notes in his book, very high status schools often refuse to rank their students, which improves their competitive position with respect to students from other schools.


  5. When it comes to grades, the provider-customer terminology is turned on its head: Professors receive goods and services from students in the guise of papers and class participation. Professors then pay the provider for these services in the form of grades. If the student’s work is less than excellent, then the professor is entitled to refuse paying the student’s asking price, the desired straight A.


    1. >If the student’s work is less than excellent, then the
      >professor is entitled to refuse paying the student’s
      >asking price, the desired straight A.

      In other words, if the student’s work is “excellent” the professor is not entitled to refuse the student an A. Yet another way to put this is that the professor has to prove to the student that some defect in the paper pushes it out of the default of an A.

      Everybody in the earlier comments recognized that this is how students think about coursework, we were also arguing that it’s an insidious framing of the pedagogical relationship. Every professor has at one point or another had the undergrad who comes to office hours and says some variation of “prove to me why this paper doesn’t deserve an A” and every professor who has remained a professor has managed to suppress the impulse to reach across the table and slap said undergrad.


      1. Not at all, GR. You make the mistake of inversion. Claiming the truth of “If not A then not B” does commit me to the truth of the inversion “If A then B.” Great rhetoric, but poor logic.


      2. No, I was not making a mistake of logic but was reading the last sentence of your original comment as implicitly meaning “if and only if” rather than merely “if.” In plain English people often say or write if to mean iff.

        Or do you really expect me to believe that when you wrote that sentence you actually meant to say that a professor has discretion in the case of sub-“excellent” work but were making no claims about obligation in the case of “excellent” work? If so the sentence is not only devoid of meaning but doesn’t make sense in context.


  6. I just submitted grades for my first term of teaching. I felt like I gave too many As, and I still got an email within minutes of when grades posted from a student who wanted to know why he got an A- instead of an A.

    I would be more than happy to give very few As, but it seems like it needs to be a collective decision to reign in grades.


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