College Customers vs. Suppliers
By Arnold Kling
The marginal departments, the ones with the lowest possible academic standards, are pulling in vast numbers of warm bodies and the tuition dollars associated with them.
I recall seeing a quote somewhere else to the effect that higher education is the only product where the consumer tries to get as little out of it as possible.
This conflict between what the consumers want–easy A’s–and what the suppliers would like to offer–meaningful learning–ought to be examined further. What is the reason for the disconnect? Some possibilities:
1. The consumers are basically right. Most courses are not really worth taking for most students, so the easy A is the best choice.
2. The course that offers the easy A still gives the student the option to learn something, but the course that requires learning does not give the student the option to earn an easy A. So the option value is always with the coures that offers the easy A.
3. Consumers are myopic, and their preference for an easy A is irrational. (This is the view that many professors hold implicitly.)
4. Grades are measurable, and real learning is not. Consumers think grades are more important than they really are, because what is measured and reported is more salient than what is unmeasured.
I should note that one potential solution to a competitive race-to-the-bottom in terms of rigor would be to have external examinations. When I was a student at Swarthmore in the Honors program, our exams were written and graded by professors from outside the college.
If students are motivated by grades, then separating the examining function from the teaching function changes the consumers’ incentive. With the exam exogenous, my grade-motivated students would want my course to be rigorous rather than easy.