I’ve taught marketing at the university level for more than 17 years as an adjunct and my goals have always been to fire up the synapses, and stretch my students’ critical thinking muscles. Not every student I’ve had has been so enthralled, but you can’t please everyone, and I’ve weathered complaints when a few didn’t get the grades they expected due to poor performance. But since we now see students—especially their parents—as consumers who “buy our product”, the relationship between teacher and student is now on the slippery slope of “provider” and “consumer” with the implications of customer satisfaction that all businesses face. So do we have an obligation to give them their money back if they’re not satisfied with what’s being provided even though the “buy” is based on their performance? And that’s just it, I’m not a “provider” of education anymore than a physician is a healthcare “provider”: I’m a person who enthusiastically shares what I’ve learned and experienced as a professional marketer and business communicator for more than 35 years.
Education has become such a big business: just look at the for-profit educational mills that abound in today’s marketplace raking in billions of dollars each year from the taxpayers and their “customers”. But major private and public institutions are also in the game and have been very adept at fundraising to keep the wheels greased—in fact, Stanford University has recently broken the one billion dollars fundraising mark within one year. The public university where I now teach a quarterly two-day marketing and customer behavior seminar to foreign students sends out administrators to several countries to recruit students who enrich our coffers. I’m the father of a 17 year-old, soon to be high school senior who is a high achiever, and he’s been deluged with direct mail from schools I’ve never even heard of, all touting in marketing speak the wonderful attributes of enrolling at their institutions—and talk about sticker shock! College recruiters routinely fan out across the country like an army of drones to sell high school kids the benefits of their campus much like the Armed Forces have been doing for years. As a marketer I get it, but as a teacher it’s troubling, and it’s developed into an arms race.
When the cost of an education is reaching such stratospheric heights that the students, and their parents, are strapped to long-term and limiting debt, we should definitely question the cost to our society and how we go about “providing” that education. I remember when a college education was a public good instead of a public expense, and was not just for those who could afford it. When college presidents and athletic coaches make the headlines for their huge salaries while classes are increasingly taught by adjuncts like me who are more “cost-effective” than tenured faculty because they get no benefits, have no rights and are usually significantly paid less, the marketing of education has come full circle. Don’t get me wrong, the adjuncts I know love teaching, as do I, since most will admit it makes them better at what they really do for a living as well as adds a cachet they can leverage in their professional lives. For many of us, our at-will teaching posts are simply our way of paying it forward for what we’ve already reaped from our own education, and the encouragement from those teachers we were lucky to have who valued who we were as students and people. It’s truly not about the money.
An education isn’t a commodity; it’s a creative learning process that is unique to each individual who participates, and usually sets in motion life long values that will ultimately pay off in a higher salary and more satisfying personal growth. We teachers are as varied as the rest of society and our approach to the subjects entrusted to us is exclusive to our personality, worldview, educational background and training, experience, age and gender…and, quite frankly, how we feel on any given day. Yep, the delivery of an educational “service” is as intangible as the one teaching it, but please, don’t call us “providers”.
What do you think?