Rawlings on the University Degree as a Commodity

One of the most talked-about ideas in higher education at the moment is the commodification of university degrees. If a degree is a commodity, then we should evaluate it based primarily on how expensive it is and how it affects our future earnings. The degree as commodity also positions the student as consumer. Students who see themselves as “consumers” of degrees believe that, as with any product, their education should be shaped according to their desires. The classes should be constantly entertaining and not too onerous, and the professors should be amiable pseudo-parents whose main role is to praise student efforts.

Hunter Rawlings’ recent article in The Washington Post, “College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one,” is important reading for all current and potential university students. Rawlings is president of the Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa. He gives the clearest argument I’ve seen yet about how a university degree is not a purchase that must please you, but rather an endeavour that must challenge you. You don’t pay your money and then sit back and be educated and entertained, as though you’re at a movie. Just the opposite. The success of your education depends upon your hard work and your willingness to be challenged by tough tasks and tougher ideas.

As Rawlings explains:

“The courses the student decides to take (and not take), the amount of work the student does, the intellectual curiosity the student exhibits, her participation in class, his focus and determination — all contribute far more to her educational “outcome” than the college’s overall curriculum, much less its amenities and social life. Yet most public discussion of higher ed today pretends that students simply receive their education from colleges the way a person walks out of Best Buy with a television.”

And he continues:

“If we are going to treat college as a commodity, and an expensive one at that, we should at least grasp the essence of its economic nature. Unlike a car, college requires the “buyer” to do most of the work to obtain its value. The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum. I know this because I have seen excellent students get great educations at average colleges, and unmotivated students get poor educations at excellent colleges. And I have taught classes which my students made great through their efforts, and classes which my students made average or worse through their lack of effort.”

I agree with Rawlings, and as an instructor I’ve felt the stark difference between groups of students who are eager to learn and be challenged, and groups who seem to believe their only responsibility in class is to occupy a chair.

If we perceive degrees as commodities, we lose sight of the value of intellectual challenge, and therefore of the essence of university life.

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