October 4, 2015

DANBERG BIGGS | Great Expectations

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The problem with my generation of students, I’m told, is that we think we’re customers. It’s become the focus of op-eds and convocation speeches, which have tried to rally students to view their education as an intrinsic good and leave behind their consumerist expectations. The case is that if you see yourself as a customer on campus, you come to expect that the institution has a responsibility to appease you in some way. Frankly, though, this view is far too narrow. Surely there are certain perverse expectations that many students have adopted, but this does not mean that they should have no expectations. It’s not that students shouldn’t act as customers — they should. Rather,the way in which they act as customers should reflect an expectation that their universities respect the cost that they impose and honor their educational mission.

American students are often treated by their institutions as consumers in a way that is generally blind to their needs as learners. Our university system is one that encourages students to act like they are purchasing a product. As has been well documented, universities — including Cornell — have spent increasing amounts of money on non-instructional aspects of their respective institutions. This includes expansions of the size of the physical campuses, the promotion of non-instructional research staff and the improvement of campus amenities. This has been a function of broad shifts in the university system that has forced colleges to make these changes in order to keep up.

In large part, this explains why I’ve found myself eating steak at a dining hall then traipsing over to sit in the balcony of a 400-student lecture. Perhaps a lecture of that size is effective for some, but its size is based on the decision made by the university that it is more likely to lose prospective students if other campus amenities aren’t on par with competing institutions —  they’re focusing on the steak in the dining halls when they should be working towards offering more personal instruction. When universities advertise these qualities to prospective students, they become the basis of students’ expectations once they arrive.

Generally speaking, students buy into this mentality. We believe that we are allowed to have consumerist expectations of our universities, but mostly in the realm of comfort. It is reasonable, for example, to demand a certain quality in our residence halls, and many of us do. I find myself developing expectations, attaching too great a value to aspects of my college experience that have very little to do with the quality of my education.

Sometimes, even when we make requests with regard to our instruction, it comes through as an expectation for high grades and easy classes. This is the justified knock against students. When we do adopt a mentality of entitlement, it becomes a desire that professors treat us as though they owe us. At best, this manifests itself as a desire to take classes that never challenge, and at worst, it is a direct expectation that professors treat their students’ comfort as their paramount responsibility.

Principally, however, I do not oppose the expectation that we, as students, have as customers. Students are expected to pay increasingly exorbitant costs, mortgaging their futures in a way that no previous generation has been asked to do. Furthermore, a university degree has been labeled as a prerequisite for consideration for most high-income job opportunities. If students are asked to pay as they are, and given very little choice in the matter, it is not only natural, but justified that they develop very real demands.

These demands ought to be specifically of their universities — for them to provide greater individual attention to students’ educational experience. Were students to expect that universities, as vendors, reduce class sizes, provide greater access to tutors and offer affordable textbooks it would be not only a legitimate expectation, but one that would immediately benefit these students in what should be their purpose in attending. It should be unacceptable for any consumer to pay $65,000 for instruction that was half that price for their parents.

This is not a call for students to force universities to charge less money. It is too lucrative a system for students to truly gain control of. Rather, this is a call for students to adopt a responsible consumerist outlook. Clinging to the centrality of education as the purpose in our enrollment, we should demand that universities do the same. Further, we ought to resist the charge that any entitlement is an inherent wrong, or an indicator that we are childish — this claim is simplistic. Demanding excellence in our educations can allow students to gain some degree of agency over their college experience, or, at the very least, give them some peace of mind.

Rubin Danberg Biggs is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester.