Should We Buy the "Student-As-Consumer" Metaphor?

George Cheney
Communication Studies, University of Montana
Jill J. McMillan
Communication, Wake Forest University
Roy Schwartzman
Speech, University of South Carolina


The metaphor of student as consumer has become more than common in the public discourse of higher education in North America and Europe; it has become the rage (see, e.g., Fisher, 1993). Responding in part to the same market pressures that have sent many corporations scrambling for now strategies and new labels (e.g., "customer-driven" and "zero defects" ), educational reformers have also wondered openly: "If we can reconfigure the firm as customer- or consumer-oriented, why can't we do the same for the college and university?" (Brigham, 1993). At first glance, such a re-orientation makes a great deal of sense for higher education: by regarding the student seriously as the consumer or customer, we can address pressing issues of accountability, efficiency, relevance and practicality. Besides, what could be more democratic than to let students decide "with their feet"what is best for them what curriculum meets their needs, etc. Further, treating the student as consumer enables academics to firm up our flagging reputations as ivory-tower elites who care little for the concerns of the "real world" (see Gerstner, Semerad, Doyle, & Johnson, 1994). Nevertheless, we argue here that the student-as-consumer metaphor has severe limitations when put into practice.

It is now commonplace to observe that metaphors do much more than simply decorate discourse (see, e.g., Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). In fact, whenever we turn to abstract topics, we resort to metaphors. The metaphoric turn helps us to conceptualize intangibles and complexities by placing them in a familiar context. For example, an organization is often described as a machine, a person, a family, or a culture. Metaphors are necessary and useful; however, when they become entrenched, we can rather mindlessly think and act in their terms.

Thinking of students as consumers, for instance, places education entirely within the frame of market forces, just as refashioning the citizen as consumer does for participation in a democracy. The world of products and services bought and sold, with specific costs and an easily measured "bottom line," promises to make education simpler and more efficient. So far, so good. Or, is it?

If we consider students strictly as consumers, we are suggesting that all we need to do is find out what they want at any given moment and give it to them. With this kind of market-oriented emphasis, popularity and profit can reign. We question the wisdom of the application of the student-as-consumer metaphor to higher education.

In this case, we wish to take a careful look at the implications and limitations of the metaphor of student-as-consumer, arguing that its popularity can lead us where we really don't wish to go (see, e.g., Douglas, 1986). We make our case with the following propositions:

  1. that the student-as-consumer metaphor actually distances students from the very educational process which is supposed to engage them;
  2. that the provision of momentary customer satisfaction should not be confused with providing a high-quality educational experience or with ongoing educational improvement;
  3. that market-driven, customer-oriented response mechanisms often represent in practice a type of "pseudodemocracy";
  4. that the "measurement mania" accompanying the rise of the student-as-consumer metaphor is reductionistic in its conception of the educational process; and
  5. that much can be lost in the translation of contemporary business-management fads to the experiences of higher education.

First, the student-as-consumer metaphor distances the student from the educational process.

When students become consumers, their relationship to the institution becomes defined in a particular, external way. In the terms of open systems theory (e.g., Katz & Kahn, 1978), the student-as-consumer is by definition placed outside the boundaries of the organization, just as we literally find the patron at a fast-food window. The dual status of students, as both clients and relatively long-term members of the organization, is weighted completely toward the external role. As consumers, students are part of a consuming public to be courted and seduced, rather than being committed members of the organization whose job it is, at least in part, to participate actively in the very process they're buying.

We all roundly condemn the spoon-feeding approach to education, which treats students as passive receivers. Moreover, we suspect that it is just such a way of thinking that leads students to say: "Look at the grade that professor gave me!" Or, "I came here to receive an education." Yet, we find ourselves promoting a metaphor that encourages students to be passive and detached rather than heavily engaged in the co-creation of education. And, the efficiency imperative of consumerism for education--"Get 'em in and get' em out"--leaves no place for the "nourishing guidance...that makes the development of competence...a joint accomplishment" (Krippendorf, 1995, p. 122).

The student-as-consumer metaphor suggests a polarization that has sometimes crippled businesses. Instead of being seen as partners with faculty, student-consumers become merely demanding receivers of services that faculty provide. This give and get mentality is unhealthy for what should be a richly cooperative educational setting. The consumer can easily see himself or herself in an adversarial relationship with the institution, readily moving into a legalistic interpretation of how desires are to be satisfied by the college or university. Thus, students can come to hold the university exclusively liable when their wishes are not granted or their goals are not met. Distance between students and faculty can easily turn into outright animosity. Consumers simply express their desires and then wait for them to be fulfilled. This is hardly the best model for higher education.

Second, we should not confuse the momentary satisfaction of consumer wants with either the provision of high-quality education or ongoing educational improvement.

In terms of marketing, customer satisfaction lies at the core of providing a quality product or service. However, satisfaction can be quite fleeting, as when the buyer gets a quick consumer rush by buying a big-ticket item only to discover that the real satisfaction is short-lived. Many students, while they are students, may be satisfied with courses that lack rigor and make few demands upon them. Yet upon later reflection, those same graduates may truly appreciate the very classes that seemed burdensome or unduly challenging at the time they were taken. This more mature perspective can take years to develop, which is precisely why instant feedback to courses and instructors needs to be complemented with long-term responses from alumni. That professor who seemed awfully harsh in freshman English seems awfully helpful when the former student has to write an annual report or a press release on the job.

Far from a careful and considered assessment, customer satisfaction may index only a gut reaction. As Jacques Barzun (1959, 1989) and Neil Postman (1988) have observed, satisfaction often results from sheer entertainment instead of intellectual challenge. Of course, none of this is to say that college courses should be boring. But the quick fix of a glib phrase may take the place of thorough understanding, and the passive absorption of information may substitute for painstaking research. These short cuts can be fun simply because they are easy, and typically students do not yet have adequate benchmarks for judging quality. Just as the pleasant taste of fast food does not compensate for its nutritional void, so painless and passive entertainment does not compensate for the loss of genuine academic substance. Certainly, education should be entertaining, but entertainment is not a sufficient criterion for enlightenment. And ongoing educational improvement depends on innovation and provocation in the classroom, both of which are discouraged when simple popularity becomes the main means of determining what is taught.

Third, we argue that while the basic impulse behind customer- driven or consumer-driven organizations and work processes seems to be very democratic, they actually become in practice a type of pseudo-democracy requiring very limited engagement of each participant (in this case, the student).

Contemporary marketing strategies as well as contemporary politics are built upon the survey as an up-to-the-minute indicator of citizen-consumer's moods, preferences and intentions to vote or buy. At one level, this is a positive development: it enables each person an avenue for expressing his or her desires directly to a system by which all individuals' desires are accumulated and processed. The mean response, as well as proportions of responses in relevant categories, give us a rough idea of what everyone "out there" is thinking. But, such a process, which is now approximated through course and instructor evaluations at nearly all colleges and universities, actually encourages restricted, short- term thinking, The process becomes tantamount to what we call push- button democracy. In-depth analysis is in effect discouraged; no preparation is required; and momentary or passing thoughts are granted real legitimacy on paper or on the computer screen. What's more, modern citizens--students included--become even more passive in this "sit-back- and-check-off-your preferences" type of response mechanism. Still, they become very adept at survey participation: everyone gets used to being asked to provide an opinion on this or that subject on demand. These are reasons why the wholesale adaptation of consumer marketing strategies and techniques for education (and for politics) are so alarming, as Laufer and Paradeise (1990) argue in their ironically titled book, Marketing Democracy.

The point is that the type of participation usually entailed by consumerism is illusory and superficial. The danger, therefore, lies in consumerism's false promise. The participatory ideal would be fine if it were a truly collaborative effort, with students, faculty, staff, administrators, and the general public all giving informed contributions to the process. Instead, consumer-driven education resembles the typical consumption of television, with students being asked to indicate their preferences about things that they do not in fact co-create.

Fourth, what we call "measurement mania" tends to treat the educational process in a reductionistic way.

Consumer satisfaction may be equivalent to liking or disliking, a straightforward and immediate emotional reaction that can be expressed along a Likert-type scale. If we insist on quantifying student-consumer satisfaction, then we would measure popularity in much the same way that fast-food chains count the billions of burgers sold. With quantifiable popularity as the index to satisfaction, the scene is set for shameless self-promotion as faculty compete for the allegiance of students.

Interestingly, management theorists have recognized for some time that so-called "soft" factors, including superordinate goals, leadership style, and organizational culture, are critical to -an enterprise's survival and success. Although these aspects of organizational life cannot be measured in clearly quantifiable terms, they do in fact contribute to effectiveness, morale, and long-term success. Some of the most central ingredients for education and business, such as an institution's contribution to society, are most resistant to quantification.

The educational process is much more than the number of courses offered, the number of students in a class, or the number of students served by an institution. To attempt to quantify a complex experience is to do it an injustice and to obscure some of its most important aspects. While quantifiable outcomes are important, they can never be the whole story, just as the condition of the US. economy today can hardly be described with a few indicators such as the GNP, the unemployment rate, and the Consumer Price Index. Much, much more is going on.

Fifth, a great deal of substance gets lost in the translation of the language of consumerism to higher education.

Linguists remind us that for a metaphor to be effective it must maintain a "tensional truth"between its constituent parts (e.g., Casenave, 1982, p. 144). The elements of a metaphor--in this case, the student and the consumer--cannot be so similar as to render the comparison mundane or obvious. On the other hand, if the conceptual distance between the two elements is too great, the use of the metaphor can degenerate into riddle, paradox or outright distortion. Thus, it is helpful to ask: How are the functions of a university not like those of a typical business? And, how are students not like customers or consumers?

One difference can be found in the way quality is assessed in higher education versus in many other industries or organizations. Business, typically speaking, is product oriented, although the product is often the delivery of a service. Education, by contrast, is process oriented in that it ideally seeks to train people to continue to educate themselves. Thus, a high quality experience or outcome can really only be assessed well over time and in multiple ways. Consumers engage in many discrete transactions, always with an identifiable product or service about which they can say, "I bought this." However, when seeking an education, students do not buy a specific product or service external to themselves, except for books and supplies. Further, the quantifiable results of education--salary earned, positions obtained, rewards gleaned--are not the only objectives here. Rather, our students contract with us to be challenged and to exceed their previous intellectual limits. Unlike consumers, students never really get an education. They, like all of us, are involved in the process of becoming wiser. (And, none of this is meant to say that any particular business or industry cannot also adopt a process-oriented strategy and perspective.)

Another difficulty is that "The customer is always right" notion seems ill-suited for the ways in which a student approaches a college or university. After all, students embark on a course of study in part because they don't yet know exactly what they want. A large measure of the experience we call higher education involves developing a focus of attention on certain areas, learning useful concepts, and honing needed skills--all outcomes that strictly consumer-oriented education presumes are already achieved.

Education is a process of discovery. This is not to say, of course, that students and parents should have nothing to say about the shape of students' learning experiences; rather, we are reminding ourselves and the readers of this essay that the responsibility for the design and oversight of the educational agenda lies with educational professionals and that it should not be abdicated. As Rinehart (1993) argues, "Students cannot be considered the primary customer of education for the purpose of educational quality, for this simple reason: students have no conception of what they must learn; they are, after all, students" (p. 59).


The metaphor of student as consumer at first glance seemed to offer a lot of promise for transforming higher education because of how it focused our attention on the needs and desires of students, the accountability of colleges and universities, the control of costs involved, and a curriculum which develops practical skills in addition to intellectual ones. However, there are clearly disadvantages to this graft of a metaphor from a particular brand of marketing to the world of education. Specifically, the metaphor has a distancing effect on students, reducing their status to non-participants in the process of education; the metaphor confuses the momentary satisfaction of wants with long-term educational outcomes; it offers a form of pseudo- democracy in the place of authentic engagement; it treats educational outcomes in a reductionistic way; and it distorts the meaning of the very educational process it seeks to describe.

We would like to reduce the distance between students and institutions of higher learning, but not by bowing to each fashion or fad in the larger market. We celebrate a process of critical engagement, recognizing students as co-creators in the educational endeavor. We use the same term to refer to higher education's complementary duties of being engaged in the larger society while maintaining a healthy, critical distance from it.

We would like truly to empower students, encouraging them to participate actively in an educational process that will be quite different and much better for their engagement. We envision a dynamic educational process that tries not only to connect with the real world but also to transform it. While preserving the legitimate province of faculty to serve as experts, we wish to further educational programs that include, entice and involve students.

The best thing that any college or university can do for students is to invite them into a process by which they learn how to learn for the rest of their lives but not through pandering to fleeting tastes or being bound by restricted notions of the bottom line. Above all, we seek to stress our common involvement and investment in life-long learning and the human community.

Finally, we urge careful reflection on the symbols which we ourselves create, lest they lead us in directions that we don't really wish to go. We should take caution in asking for students as consumers; we just might get them.


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