Case’s Law #3: It is Impossible for Students to Know Exactly What They are Buying

(This is Part 4 in a series of blogs I am doing entitled “Why It Doesn’t Make Economic Sense to Run Education like a Business.”)

One day, when I was about eleven years old, I was in the Ford station wagon with my dad when the engine light went on.  He stopped to pop the hood and we got out to peer at the workings underneath.  “One thing to do when something is wrong is smell the engine,” he said.  I looked at him, waiting for that important bit of advice that fathers pass on to sons.  “I don’t really know what I’m supposed to be smelling,” he said with a chuckle, and we slammed the hood and got back into the car.  This was the moment when it dawned on me that the entire automotive world was something of a mystery to my father.

My father, a Methodist minister, has many gifts. Automotive knowledge.  I have several vacation memories of sitting on the side of the road, while we waited for the tow truck to haul away of one of the many station wagons we went through.  A mechanic once informed my father that his Buick Skylark was actually two different cars  — a 1980 body had been jerry-rigged onto a 1981 chassis by some mysterious party that had sold the vehicle to him.   Our family still talks about the bright yellow Chevy Nova that blew out three different engines.  And then there was our 1972 Chevy Vega.  This car ran fantastically for years.  Since this particular model has been called “The Worst Car Ever Made,” it is apparent to me that my father pretty much relied on dumb luck when he made his decisions to buy cars.

I don’t have more knowledge of cars than my dad, but I decided long ago to use a different method when purchasing a car.  I have discovered research.  I read Consumer Reports before I start to think about models.  I have bookmarked where I can determine the fair value of a car I am thinking about buying.  And I always take a used car to be examined by my trustworthy mechanic before I buy it, since he has far more expertise I do.  This research doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be surprises in the future, but it gives me a much greater sense that I know what I am getting into.

So we ought to be able to do this kind of research for a college education, right?

No.  I don’t think it can be done.

Education is a different animal.  Its unpredictability functions in a different way than car purchases.

What if you bought a vehicle and you thought this is what you were getting into.....

What if you bought a vehicle and you thought this is what you were getting into…..

Even if we believe college education is about getting training for a job (a definition of education that is so narrow as to be impoverished, in my estimation), we can’t know for sure what we are getting into.  For instance, many students are told, when they research potential colleges, they should choose a college with a good major in the field they want to study.  On the face of it, this is solid advice as one sets out on a career, like looking for a car with good reliability ratings.  But I have had conversations with countless numbers first-year college students over the years who aren’t really sure what they want to do.

Some say that if you don’t know what you are going to do for a career, you should take some time after high school graduation to do something else.  This kind of “research” may be of great help…and it may not.

It would not have helped me.  Like many young people at high school graduation, I did not know what I wanted to do, or what I would be well fitted for.  The existence of hundreds and hundreds of possible career options did not help.  What did I do?  I had fooled around with one of the very earliest personal computers that our high school had obtained and thought it was cool, so I declared myself to be a computer science major when I entered college.  I was unable to get into any computer science classes in the fall semester, but it took me about two weeks of a computer science class during my spring semester to realize that this was not for me.  Programming, which is very different from fooling around on a computer, was not what I expected.  Though I could do it, the work was a real struggle – I just did not “get it” as quickly as my classmates.  And I did not find the work interesting, inspiring or fulfilling.  I was not well fitted for it.

Meanwhile, I had taken a world history class during my first semester.  I not only did well, but I enjoyed it greatly.  And I had no thought that history was in my future until, late in the semester, my professor told me I had a knack for it.  He asked if I ever considered becoming a history major.  By the third week of my spring semester I had switched to history and it has proven to be a good fit.  Indeed, I would say that God called me down this path.

...only to learn that you had really been driving this around for the previous six months?   What kind of world is that?  It's college!

…only to learn that you had really been driving this around for the previous six months? What kind of world is that? It’s college!

How could I have ever known that this is what I was getting into before that first tuition payment was sent in before fall semester?  I only discovered this about myself by taking a computer science class and a college-level history class.  Pre-college research would not have helped.  In fact, that is the point.  How can we know something before we learn it?  A good college education is about education  — which includes gaining a deeper understanding of who we are and how the world works.  I can’t know what I am buying ahead of time in education, because education is about learning what I do not yet know.

And I’m just scratching the surface here.  Even if you know what career you will pursue, how do you know how a particular college will affect your ethics, politics, religious faith, or relationships?  How will a college education affect your understanding of science, culture, the arts, social institutions, gender, race, nationalism or thousands of other things?

It makes sense, of course, to choose a college with high academic standards.  It makes even better sense (in my estimation) to choose a college that will direct your mind and your desires to what is good.  Research can give you a rough idea of these qualities in a college.

But even this sort of research can be misleading.  Just what do the U.S. News and World Report rankings tell us about the kind of education we will be getting?  A recent Atlantic article argues, quite persuasively, that this ranking system is not what it claims to be.

And how about this:  this very popular system of ranking colleges may be raising the cost of education.  And, surprise, surprise, status (rather than educational outcomes) plays an outsized role in the ranking process – as I mentioned in an earlier post.

Consumer Reports gives me pretty good odds of how reliable my car will be.  A college education, however, is a four-year process that involves the unpredictability of human growth, development, learning, and desires, all cast in a context with hundreds (thousands?) of others whose impact on us is unpredictable as well.  We can learn much ahead of time about the type of college we might go to, but we can’t really know what the education will do to us.








Case’s Law #2: Customer Service is Bad for the Student

(This is Part 4 in a series of blogs I am doing entitled “Why It Doesn’t Make Economic Sense to Run Education like a Business.”)

A story.  During my first semester at Malone I was asked to teach a course in European history.  The problem was that I had little graduate training in European history.  But the department was going through some transitions and we did not yet have a historian in European history, so I was tapped to fill in.

This made me rather nervous.  I felt a bit out of my depth. I worried that the students wouldn’t get what they needed.  Furthermore, I wanted to make a good impression on the students and the department, since it was my first semester at Malone.  And I knew that students would be filling out evaluations of my class at the end of the semester.

The result?

According to the student evaluations, this was the best class I ever taught.  The scores were higher than just about anything I have taught in the fourteen years since then. Whew.  Happy ending!

Wait a minute.

Why did I receive the best scores for a course that I was least qualified to teach at a moment in my career when I was least experienced as a professor?  Have I regressed as a professor since that glorious moment in the fall of 1999?  Do I really do a worse job in subjects that I know and understand the most?


I know what that European history class looked like from my end, particularly in comparison to other classes I taught.  Since I didn’t have much graduate school expertise to draw upon, I dipped back into my old materials when I taught European history in high school.  I pulled out some old stories and jokes that I used to use, which was fun.  More tellingly, I did not require as much critical thinking, ask as many challenging questions, or raise as many difficult issues as I did in my other classes.  And I did not feel that I could grade as tough as I did in other classes, because I believed I would be punishing students for my lack of experience and expertise in this area.

In other words, this may have been the easiest, least challenging class I have ever taught in college.   But from a customer service standpoint, it was a big hit.

And that helps explain why customer service is bad for the student.

New Picture (1)Before I go further, allow me to pull out an old professorial trick here by saying that I need to qualify Case’s Law # 2.

There is a type of “customer service” in which professors care deeply about the academic excellence, character development and well-being of their students.  They might even tell a few jokes in class.

That kind of customer service, however, runs on different dynamics than our economic model of customer satisfaction, which is built upon that old American motto, “the customer is always right.”  That motto, which was popularized by department stores like Marshall Field in the early part of the twentieth century, was intended to inspire employees to do what they could to satisfy customers who were buying skirts and shoes.

Education, though, is a different animal.

The department store model of customer service encourages professors to look for ways to grant short-term happiness to students. The easiest way to make most students happy in the short term is to make the course easy and hand out good grades.  Professors know this.  Consider the following, from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education of September 5, 2008:

“For faculty members, the pressure to grade generously comes not only from anxious students and ‘helicopter’ parents, but also from promotion-and-tenure committees that look carefully at end-of-term student evaluations.  ‘It’s easier to be a high grader,’ says (one professor). ‘You can write that A or B, and you don’t have to defend it. You don’t have students complaining or crying in your office. You don’t get many low student evaluations. The amount of time that is eaten up by very rigorous grading and dealing with student complaints is time you could be spending on your own research.’”

What we have here is a variation on Barlow’s Law.  This is why we need to understand grade inflation better – the data that shows that grades in higher education have been getting higher and higher in the past four decades.  Some observers say that it is not a big deal and a few people even say it doesn’t exist.  But most observers and their studies indicate that it is real and it is a problem.  That means we need to think more carefully about these things.

A hypothesis:  our academic standards have gradually eroded over the past few decades because  we have treated education more and more like a business.  I don’t know if that is true or not, but I would like some good researchers to investigate it.

Another qualification: student evaluations do tell us some things.  They are blunt but helpful tools for identifying real problems in the classroom.  At the end of the day, students want to believe that they have learned something, even though they may not want to be pushed very hard.  Truly poor teaching does show up on student evaluations.  In addition, some students truly desire to be pushed toward excellence and will indicate so on their evaluations.

New PictureBut it looks like those good intentions only go so far.  Even very good students who want to get into graduate school will complain that tougher grading (and presumably, the higher standards that go along with it) will hurt their chances to get into graduate school (where, ironically, they will face more challenging standards).  Interestingly, these potential graduate students may be correct.  A recent study actually shows that “admissions officers appear to favor applicants with better grades at institutions where everyone is earning high grades over applicants with lower grades at institutions with more rigorous grading.”

Customer service:  it lowers our standards and gives us the incentive to produce an inferior product.

Is that the economic model we want?

Case’s Law #1: You Can’t Buy an Education.

(This is Part 3 in a series of blogs I am doing entitled “Why It Doesn’t Make Economic Sense to Run Education like a Business.”)

My brother is a mathematician at another college.   As it turns out, students don’t always get great grades in math, especially if the flavor of math happens to be calculus.  My brother once received a phone call from a parent who was upset that his son had received a poor grade.  At some point in the conversation, the father asked, “Do you realize how much we are paying for this education?”

Now, how was my brother supposed to respond?  If the student really is a “customer,” and math is the “product,” I suppose he should have said, “Oh, that’s right.  I’m sorry.  You have paid full price for your college tuition and that means your son really did get all of those problems correct. I’ll just correct the gradebook right away and I promise it won’t happen again.”

New Picture

Here’s a great cost-saving idea for medical school! Since students are “customers” and education is a “product,” let’s stop pouring money into medical schools and just sell our degrees in surgery to the highest bidders! Let the market solve the problem!

This, of course, would be an absurd response.

But we are a bit absurd these days.  It’s more than a few complaining parents who tend to think that an education is something that can be purchased.  We don’t usually state it in these terms, but if you look closely you will see that many of our educational polices are built on assumptions that view education as an economic transaction.  In many policies in which money is invested in education, (either through tuition payments or government allocation) it is solely up to the provider to insure that students demonstrate academic mastery.  This can be seen in initiatives on higher education from the federal government.  Obama’s plan to lower the costs of higher education places almost all responsibility on academic institutions while doing very little to consider the role students play in the educational process.   The most famous Republican policy from the past decade – Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” – is guilty of the same problem in the way it emphasizes standardized testing.  These policies make sense if education really can be run like businesses, for the economic self-interest in capitalism pushes businesses to deliver better products at cheaper prices.

Education, however, is a different animal.

Now, it is true that some academic systems are better than others.  Some teachers are better than others.  All educators need to be held accountable to high standards.  And somebody has to pay for it.

It is also quite possible that my brother is a hack of a teacher and is failing at his attempts to teach his students calculus.  I hesitate to draw that conclusion, however.  For one thing, my brother has been able to consistently beat me in one-on-one basketball, tennis, golf, horseshoes, baseball trivia, Rack-O and War ever since he did every one of those things in the summer of 1982 when I was twenty and he was seventeen.  So I’m a little afraid that he might beat me up if I tell everyone he is a terrible teacher.

But I also hesitate to draw that conclusion because I know from other sources that he is a very good teacher.  I also know that his students do very well at math.  And I know that in the class with the aforementioned student, most of the other students were getting good grades and demonstrating that they were learning calculus.  Since they all paid tuition and were in the same class, how could it be that they received an inferior product than he did?

The answer:  education is not a product that you can buy.  This is Case’s Law #1.  My brother’s student was not going to master Calculus III simply because his father paid a lot of money for his tuition.

Education cannot be run like a business because purchasing a product demands nothing from the customer except money.  Education, however, makes demands on students.  And those demands come in many forms.

Education demands that the student master virtues and practices – or in common terminology, study habits.  Many students procrastinate, study sloppily, study too little or get distracted when they study.  Weekly intoxication hinders the academic performance of many of our college students. However, a person who purchases a Big Mac at McDonald’s owns that hamburger as soon as the clerk slides the tray across the counter.  One does not have to read, write, solve problems, or practice extensively to master the ownership of that Big Mac, much to the relief of the millions and millions who have been served.

Other demands are actually beyond the abilities of the student, regardless of his or her study habits.  I think it is fair to say that in the field of mathematics, for instance, every person reaches a level beyond which the math is just too difficult to master.  Many of us reach our limit with calculus.  Some cannot get beyond geometry.  But even the most gifted mathematicians reach limits.  Arguably, none of the most intelligent mathematicians alive today, including my brother, are as brilliant as Isaac Newton was.  Meanwhile, one needs no talents, skills or abilities to purchase a big screen TV.  Big screen TVs can even be purchased for two-year old who cannot yet talk, which may also help explain why they will later fail to master calculus.

The demands of life situations beyond the student’s control can also hinder education.  Students get sick.  Sometimes they have tragedies or conflicts at home that undermine their education.  Mental health problems very often first afflict individuals in their early twenties, when they are in college.  And yet, people in all of these situations still are able to buy iPhones, shoes and Netflix subscriptions.

I don’t know why the student in my brother’s math class did not receive the grade his father wanted.  It might have been poor study habits.  He may not have had the same ability as others in his class.  It might have been things in life beyond his control.  It might have been a combination of these things.  But tuition dollars alone were not going to make him solve the calculus problems correctly.

Educational discussions, proposals and policies will fail economically (and academically) if they assume the problems can be fixed simply by sharpening the economic incentives of academic institutions and educators.  We also have to consider demands on the students, demands that cannot be gained through an economic transaction.

Yeah, money can’t buy me love.  Or knowledge.  Or skills.  Or understanding.  Or wisdom.







Barlow’s Law: Students Don’t Want To Get Their Money’s Worth

(This is Part 2 in a series of blogs I am doing entitled “Why It Doesn’t Make Economic Sense to Run Education like a Business.”)

We’ve all been students, so we recognize this scenario:  a professor announces that the next class will be cancelled.  Our reaction?

Of course, if we students are really “customers” and education is a “product,” then we are just pretty stupid consumers.  Think about it.  If we had purchased an 8-day package vacation in Aruba and the travel agent called us up on the beach and told us that one day of the vacation had been cancelled and we would have to fly back early, we would not be happy campers.  Or sun-bathers, as it were.

Then why are we so happy to miss a day of education, especially when higher education is so expensive?

Education is a different animal.

Students don’t want to get their money’s worth.  Barlow’s Law seems so common-sensically obvious (at least in American culture) that I probably ought to call it Barlow’s axiom, which would make it a self-evident truth.

Teachers know that they can please their students by giving them less instruction or less demanding education.  If a professor cuts an assignment, reduces reading, or eases up in any way, many students are happy.  Many students will try to sign up for easy professors.  Many figure out ways to get a decent grade with the smallest amount of work.  Many cheat. If we are let out of class early, we are happy.  Meanwhile, if extra reading and writing is required, we “customers” will complain and protest that the professor is being unfair.

Imagine striking a deal for a new Lexus and getting excited when the dealer says he will have to cut out the heated seats or the air conditioning.  Imagine complaining and protesting that the dealer is being unfair if he throws in a sun roof at no extra cost.

According to Adam Smith, society benefits under capitalism because self-interest leads businesses to produce better and cheaper products which is what customers, in their self-interest, want.  The problem is that self-interest is a complicated thing.  Yes, we know it is in our self-interest to get a good education.  But we also have immediate self-interests that run counter to the long-term habits required to obtain a good education:  we would rather play video games or hang with friends or eat nachos or check Facebook or sleep than study.  A truly stupid show on Comedy Central suddenly becomes absolutely fascinating when we have a paper to write.  Socialized from childhood as a consumer (see “Trix: cereal”), what’s a “customer” to do?

New Picture (1)Now, it is true that there are students who sincerely want the very best that an academic course can give them.  Many do not want easy professors or classes where they learn little.  In fact, most of us have probably gone back and forth between desiring a good, challenging class and wishing it were cancelled.  Usually, though, true academic desires and virtues are cultivated over time from parents or a great teacher along the way, but not from our economic system.  The desires for a challenging class stem from impulses opposite of those intensified by consumerism, such as immediate gratification, entertainment, comfort and self-indulgence.

You might point out that the economic desire for a well-paying job motivates many students to do well.  True, but I would question whether this is really the best kind of education one can get.  In fact, not all ambitious, highly motivated students deeply desire the best education they can get.  An undefinable number of hard-working, ambitious students highly desire the status or connections or economic opportunities that an education can give them, as opposed to the education itself.  In other words, many are more interested in a diploma from a prestigious institution or good grades than they are in what a given course will actually teach them.  And they will pay a lot of money for this.  A few years ago, a college in Pennsylvania did nothing but increase its tuition by a significant amount (several thousands of dollars) under the theory that students would perceive the school to have more prestige with an increased price.  Their applications from high-achieving students went up.

That points to another unsettling possibility: treating students as customers may actually be increasing the cost of higher education.  In their competition for “customers,” colleges feel the pressure to build single-person dorm rooms, lavish student centers, hip dining halls, and numerous support services to attract students.  Sometimes I ask non-athletes if they would be willing to have our college cut all intercollegiate athletics, if it would save them $1500/year on their tuition.  Most would not want to change – they would rather pay more to have athletics on campus, even if they are not competing themselves.  Socialized from childhood as consumers, (see “Trix: cereal”), students want a particular lifestyle in college.

When we treat education as a consumer item, we end up with an inferior product at a higher price.  This seems to be what “customers” want.

So, does it really make economic sense to run education on a business model?