The customer is always right—so goes the saying. And your students, whether you like it or not, are customers. Whether they’ve secured their tuition money through a scholarship, a full-time job, military service, student loans, or even if their rich uncle Lester is paying their way, students are trading vast amounts of financial capital to acquire an education. As teachers, it behooves us to be mindful of that fact, even if the service-nature of the teacher-student relationship is a bit more complicated than being a concierge at a posh hotel, where you’d be required to attend to the most minute details of a guest’s wishes without question.
The teacher-student relationship has come a long way since the ivy started creeping up the walls of venerable institutions like Oxford or Yale. And it’s complicated further by the modern student-as-consumer model, especially with a large percentage of students mortgaging their financial futures to attend. This essay isn’t strictly an attempt to be didactic about your place as an instructor in this environment, but it should prove useful as a place to ponder your philosophy on these issues—as every teacher should have an understanding of their role in the academy. And it can be extremely difficult to strike a balance between your personal needs, your goals as an instructor, the needs of your individual student-customers, and the collective needs of all your students. Consider this food for thought.
First, it’s well worth pondering just how much college students are paying for their education. Based on numbers provided by NCES, the average cost for a four-year degree for U.S. college students entering with the class of 2020 and graduating in 2024 will be roughly $116,000. To put that in perspective, as of this writing that could buy a student 185 acres of land in rural New Hampshire. Assuming a MWF class schedule of roughly 38 meetings per semester and a four course workload, every face you see in your classroom will fork out roughly $95 to pay for the privilege of being in your company—every time they sit down. No pressure.
Even beyond the staggering and ever-increasing dollar numbers that go along with a college education, it’s worth remembering that most students are only able to afford such huge sums of tuition money through student loans. For the class of 2018, 65% of Seniors graduated with an average debt load approaching $30,000,a number that continues growing yearly and doesn’t even reflect the considerable additional financial contributions of parents and scholarships. With this in mind, it isn’t hyperbolic to say that most of our students are mortgaging a considerable chunk of their financial futures in order to attend college. So not only are students customers, they’re big-ticket buyers whether they’re fully mindful of this reality or not.
In theory, these students should be getting something of comparable value for their dollar. This can be hard to quantify, though, as a college education’s value is nearly impossible to measure, as it provides more than merely the sum of knowledge acquired in the classroom. In addition to information and accreditation, students are also paying for the life experience of attending college, access to a potential network of like-minded future graduates, experience completing work in a supportive semi-professional setting, and for many, the training in self-reliance and personal responsibility that being away from home for the first time provides. For many students, these facets of college life will be every bit as important as the academic and professional skills they refine in the classroom, chief among which should remain writing.
Surveys of employers of new college graduates consistently show that writing proficiency is among the most desired skills they search for in new graduates.,, Yet the most commonly reported hard skill lacking according to thousands of surveyed employers? You guessed it—writing proficiency. Employers desire and expect that they’ll be getting a competent writer when they hire a college graduate, and they’re consistently disappointed in this regard.
If students are mortgaging their futures to become the type of writer employers hope to hire, they’re consistently being oversold a product that underdelivers. Teaching writing is a difficult task, even for seasoned professionals, and there are myriad reasons for this, but given the incredible sums of money involved and the degree of underperformance, it’s puzzling that major institutions of higher education aren’t treating the situation with the level of urgency it demands.
Staring these facts in the face can be a daunting proposition for any college instructor, especially a relatively new one. It’s worth remembering, though, that as a teacher, you can only teach the students in front of you, and you can only do so much on that front. You’re only one person with so many hours in your day, and you probably have a lot of students. Taking on the burden of fixing this extraordinarily complex and massive problem should only be done with your personal contribution in mind. The quality of graduates’ writing necessarily must first improve one teacher and one student at a time.
Ultimately, a lot of what a student will get out of their college writing education will come down to the decisions instructors like you make in process and course content. Your syllabus matters. And the way you choose to enforce the rules you set on your syllabus matters. Being a customer doesn’t entitle a student to flout the course guidelines agreed upon at the beginning of the semester. Inevitably, some students will fail to meet deadlines, miss work, or fall short of expected standards. How an instructor deals with these cases should be an individual decision on the part of the instructor informed by departmental and institutional policy. It’s worth considering these situations carefully beforehand, especially with the student-as-customer in mind.
When dealing with the individual student who may wish for accommodation beyond course guidelines, it may be helpful to consider how fair it is to the other student-customers in the class, who are also paying, not merely for course knowledge but also for the accreditation that comes with a college degree. All your student-customers are paying for a set of standards that must be maintained to uphold the integrity of that accreditation. It’s also worth remembering that part of what the individual student-customer pays for is the set of lessons that comes with failing to meet course expectations in a semi-professional environment. And likely the degree to which course rules are strict and rigidly enforced will change depending on whether students are in their first semester or fifth. Part of being a college instructor involves wresting with these philosophical considerations and deciding what type of teacher you wish to be to your student-customers at each stage in their college education.
The student-as-customer model also has the potential to complicate the instructor’s life in one further important way. I have had many colleagues, for various reasons, who have well outworked the mandate of their contract. Some may have done it for their personal desire for professional excellence, others out of a feeling of obligation to the institution, others because they were new instructors learning to teach, others because they simply loved to teach and preferred nothing more than to be doing their job. Whatever the reasons, it isn’t too difficult to find young instructors who are routinely putting in 60-80 hours a week for a job where they’re contracted for forty. This too is a philosophical point each instructor must wrestle with.
Considering the dollar amounts and debt profiles of our student-customers, it’s hardly surprising to find many earnest instructors overburdening themselves with customer service in mind. I would not presume to discourage this type of work ethic for any instructor who is striving to provide a better writing education for the students they can affect. I would, though, suggest that every instructor consider weighing their professional obligations against the obligation they have to themselves to be more than just their job.
So are you in the service industry? Yes, but part of the service you provide is faithful and fair gatekeeping so that all your students are being served fairly. Yes, you are in the service industry, and you should also have a life to go home to at the end of the day.
Students, reasonably, should be getting something of great value for their considerable financial investment and their major investment of time. Writing competently and professionally needs to be one of the skills all students come away from a college education owning. Our philosophies as teachers will surely vary in many respects, but whatever they are, they should be formed, at least to some degree, in service of this goal.
 National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76, accessed January 2020. (2020 yearly cost of $29,000 assumes extrapolated tuition increase of roughly $800 per year based on average yearly tuition increase from 2007-2017.)