August 18, 2016

The Logic of Consumption: Education

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

In a recent post, I asked readers to think critically about the logic of consumption. This doesn’t mean that we start thinking about consumption as harmful, or that consumption is either good or bad. Instead, challenging the logic of consumption means that we acknowledge that we tend to view ourselves as consumers in arenas of social life where the consumer model doesn’t neatly fit. In that post, I used the examples of relationships and health as two modes of social life where viewing ourselves primarily as consumers can be problematic.

Education is another example where the logic of consumption fails both students and faculty.

What does a consumer-driven model of education look like? It places students in the role of customer, purchasing a service, and faculty, staff, and administrators as service providers. “Giving the customer what they want” might mean inflating grades to keep the customers happy.

It might mean that no answer is wrong on an exam as long as the customer has paid in full. I once had a student who rarely showed up to class and was surprised to learn that he was failing the course. “But I paid a lot of money for this class!” he told me. I said that I agreed, and wondered why he didn’t attend a class that he (or his family) had spent so much money on. The implication was that he should at least pass the class; in his eyes, the fact that he paid tuition should count for something, even if he did not understand the basic concepts of the course well enough to pass an exam.

If “the customer is always right,” then policies governing the institution should bend to meet the needs of its “customers”—such as allowing some students to avoid taking certain classes that they might not like but are central to a major. This, of course, is no way to provide an education.

The consumer model of education is very different from student-centered learning, where students are active participants in shaping the learning process both inside and outside of the classroom and take a lead role in the construction of knowledge. And criticizing a consumer model does not mean letting instructors, staff, and administrators off the hook if they forget that an educational institution’s primary goal should be educating its students.

At its most extreme form of the logic of consumption, we have for-profit institutions where the goal is simply to make a profit for shareholders rather than educate students. Several of these schools have been under federal investigation in recent years for high-pressure sales tactics to increase enrollment and for making false promises about their graduates’ earnings in order to lure students/customers. (A recent study found that most students’ earnings actually declined after enrolling in a for-profit college.) Students often finish for-profit programs with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt and a worthless degree—if they finish at all (most fail to graduate).

Taxpayers subsidize for-profit colleges and those who profit from them, since students largely depend on federally-backed student loans for tuition. Highly paid lobbyists have been able to keep lawmakers from shutting down this practice entirely, wielding influence among members of Congress to avoid much oversight or regulation. Their profit, not their educational merit, keeps many for-profit colleges operating.

Most colleges and universities are non-profit institutions, meaning that the revenue generated from tuition, fees, and fundraising is used solely to benefit the institution. There are no shareholders who profit from recruiting more and more students; in fact, an institution’s prestige increases if it is more highly selective and rejects more students than it accepts.

It’s not just for-profit colleges where the logic of consumption can interfere with the process of education, though. As state funding has shrunk, colleges and universities across the country have had to come up with other ways to raise revenue. Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik described the pitfalls of running universities using a business model, as institutions become more dependent on grants from wealthy donors, which is often earmarked for industry-related research or generating patents.

The result, as Peter Kaufman’s post on architecture on campus points out, is that some disciplines receive a great deal of resources, particularly if they have clear connections with industry, while others do not and are at risk for being closed down. In her NPR commentary, anthropologist Barbara King describes the corporatization of the university, noting the relentless pressure many faculty members face to bring in money through grants and awards. This takes time away from teaching, and to King’s point, from reading and contemplation—both of which are central to being a good scholar.

What happens when the logic of consumption takes over an educational institution? The pursuit of knowledge as a goal in and of itself gets lost, for both students and faculty. An excitement for learning disappears if the only purpose of education is about developing a marketable resume. Yes, job skills are important (so much so I have blogged about resume writing, internships and sociology’s relevance to the job market), but so is the process of learning for learning’s sake.

How else does the logic of consumption shape education?


Great Post about the logic consumption. You have related it very well with a good example for education. As you told learning is the most important thing in education rather than just paying the fees and sitting in class for the namesake. Thank You for the very useful and informative post.


Education is very important for humans why from that is is gonna make his career and pursuing career.

The reason for why I chose to focus on this article is primarily because of the fact that I am a college student, I am currently experiencing everything the author stated in a sort of sense. I am currently attending Santa Barbara City College through the Promise Program which ultimately leads to think that my college is an open system as it is literally providing me for a free opportunity to strike greatness, and in a sense it is a humongous opportunity as I am currently paying no fees for tuition or books therefore leading showing that it is an open system. Through my sociological interest and analysis in this article I was able to realize that SBCC is a business as well, as it builds the tracks that will ultimately lead to attending a four year university and pursuing additional education. For example, I am currently in the decision process of which university I will pursue next after my years at SBCC and one of the top ones on my list is USC a for-profit private university. USC’s marketing techniques advertized the rate of success after college which ultimately lead to think of the opportunities for intergenerational mobility in a positive sense, they are selling the idea of an individual being able to reach the higher classes by partaking in their education. In reality, USC rate of success after university are probably much lower and many people might experience the negative side of Intergenerational mobility due to the enormous amounts of college debt after school, ultimately leading someone to cut corners and commit sacrifices which as a result cause relative deprivation as a vast population of college students are forced to lower their standard of living to deal with debts of university.
Additionally we should not be blind to the fact that universities do provide the possibility to achieve the American Dream. The ideology being that through hard work and perseverance will one be able to achieve greatness. In today’s society there are many cases of successful individuals that attended a certain university, and ultimately colleges teach someone the important skill of learning how to learn, which is imperative to career success. With this skill set an individual increases their opportunity of moving into a higher social class from a closed system that provides low opportunity for success.

This is a whole new perspective of looking at education, impressive

This article challenges the logic of consumption, by using every day examples. The customers "always right:, was a good representation of students in college trying to cheat out a good grade from doing a whole lot of nothing. Bringing the education system into play when supporting the downfall of the logic of consumption was helpful. Giving an alternative such as centered learning is a good proposition that would allow students to learn and want to learn. I would question why did we decide logic consumption is a problem solver?

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