Well readers, as I’m sure you all know, we are at the end of the semester. Now is the time when we find ourselves staring down unrelenting stacks of grading, as final papers, final exams, and the final complaints all roll in at the same time. So, while I wait for my piles of student work to come in next week, I thought I would spend a little time addressing one common complaint.
Ask anyone who teaches at the college level, and you will hear stories about the students who complain about how, given that they are paying tuition, the professor (or the university) gets to set the rules. From my first year teaching as a Teaching Fellow at Boston College through my current gig at SUNY Potsdam, I have heard this complaint in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s the student who demands extra time on work based on the fact that he’s paying tuition and so he should set the terms of the course, or the student who confidently informs me that she is paying my salary so, essentially, she’s my boss, I have heard what must be every form of this argument over the nearly twenty years I’ve been teaching. And more often than not, these complaints come at the end of the semester, when due dates have passed and it is too late to make up any of the missed work from the semester.
This semester is no different. Right now I have students who are asking for “extra credit,” by which they mean “replacement credit,” which is my term for the quick assignment, often unrelated to the coursework, to substitute for work that was not turned in earlier in the semester.* And, predictably, one of these students invoked the fact that he is paying tuition for his education**; so long as he is paying tuition for the entire semester, he should have the entire semester to complete his work. Due dates, in other words, should be extended to the end of the semester, as that is the period of time the student is paying for. In this manifestation of the argument, the student is paying for a day pass at an amusement park, and should be able to come and go as he pleases. And as I will explain below, he’s not entirely wrong.
While there are a great many reasons why we should stop treating students as customers, we do need to realize that students are in fact paying money and getting something in return. However, as I see it, many people misunderstand what students are actually paying for. Many students think they are paying for the degree; so long as they pay their money, they should be given every opportunity to complete that degree, regardless of what rules or policies are in place. Many students (and parents) think that they are paying for an entry into the job market; so long as they pay their money, there should be some guarantee of a job at the end of the degree. Many faculty think students are paying for the education; the knowledge is the goal. Many administrators just focus on the fact that students are paying.*** Given the rising costs of a college education, we cannot ignore that fact that students are engaged in an economic transaction. But what we need to clarify is the exact nature of this transaction.
The students are entering into an economic transaction with the university as a whole. This means that students are not entering into such an agreement with individual faculty members.**** The terms of that agreement, in other words, are not negotiated with the faculty members. I remind students of this when they point out that they are paying my salary: I ask them for a raise. I ask to know what I can do to make more money. It’s usually at this point that students remind me that someone else is technically paying my salary, which is when I remind them of the exact same thing. I don’t deny that students pay money; they just aren’t paying it to me.
However, the more important consideration is what students are paying for. They are not, I claim, paying for anything I noted above: a degree, an entry point into the job market, or an education. I know this because students can (and some do) pay a great deal of money and not get any of these things in return. No, as my student above suggested, they are paying for a day pass. Much like customers at Canobie Lake Park, students are paying for general admission; what they do once inside, however, is up to them.^
As with the park, what students are paying for is an entry pass. Nothing more. Students are paying for a stamp that allows them access to the park. What they do inside that park, however, has nothing at all to do with the economic transaction. Once you are allowed past the gate and into the park, you have been given everything you paid for.
I remember going to such parks when I was a kid. Sometimes, I spent my time hanging out with friends. We didn’t ride any of the rides, but instead hung out, grabbed some food, and talked. We did nothing we couldn’t have done back home. But we still paid the same admission price as those kids who paid admission to ride all of the rides. This is no different from the students who go to college and blow off their classes. You want to sleep in your dorm room until noon, then spend the afternoon hanging out with friends until the parties at night? Fine by us. You’ve paid your tuition and received your admission stamp; from an economic standpoint, we’re done. However, you now don’t have the right to complain when, at the end of the semester, you didn’t take advantage of your time. The park closes at 10:00pm, regardless of how interested you have suddenly become in riding the roller coaster at 9:59pm.
Also, you are paying for all day admission. The park opens at 9:00am, and everything is up and running. If you want to get the most value for your ticket, then you want to get here early. This is exactly how students should be thinking about advising and registration. Just as the rides are open and the seats are empty when the park opens, so too are the classes available and the seats empty when registration begins. First come, first served.^^ If you get to the park at noon, we are still charging you the full price for the day pass. And if you have to wait in line, so be it. If you want or need a particular class, then register for it early. In fact, as with the rides at the park, you should also prioritize. Everybody loves the Yankee Cannonball, so the line is going to form fast and get long quick. If that ride is important to your experience, tackle it first. Get there early enough to avoid the long line. But if you wait, you may miss out, or you may lose most of the day waiting in line. It’s astonishing how often students will come to me with this problem: they need a particular course to graduate on time, but they waited to register and now the course is full. One such student last year needed a class to graduate (it was her last requirement for the major). Instead of registering when registration opened, she waited until the end of the semester, and then panicked. Well, shit happens. Everyone else got to the park early enough.
(In a related vein, if you don’t get the most out of the ride the first time you ride it, then you have to get back in line with everyone else. I’m sorry you closed your eyes on the Sky Ride and missed the view. But that’s on you. Get back in line behind everyone else. You didn’t do the readings, watch the films, or complete the assignments? That’s too bad. But you need to register for the class again. And next time, pay attention, or you just might miss all the fun again.)
As with the amusement park, you can return as often as you want, for as long as you want, to ride any ride you want, provided you pay the admission. You can go to the park every day, and you can come to college every semester. So long as you are paying for admission, we will not turn you away.^^^ You can ride every ride, as often as you want. Go nuts. In fact, you may have to come back multiple days to ride all the rides; there are many things to do in the park, and you will have to wait for some of them. How long it takes you to complete your tour of the park, however, has as much to do with you as it does with the park. Maximize your time, and make the most out of the experience. But know you may have to stay until closing, and you may have to come back another day, especially if you shift gears mid-stream.
Many students extend the length of their education because they change majors. The earlier you make such a change, the better the university can streamline the rest of your education so that you can graduate on time. (This, by the way, is why good advising matters. Good advisor know how you can get the most out of the system.) The longer you wait, the harder that becomes. I’ve had Education majors change majors in their senior year, and then complain that they can’t graduate in 4 years.^^^^ As I explain to them, most of their courses in Education don’t count toward another major. So while it is possible to finish any major at the university in 4 years, you will need most of those 4 years to do so (while also completing the general education requirements). The longer you wait in line for one ride, in other words, the more time you lose if you suddenly change your mind and wander over to another ride. I don’t care how long you waited to ride the Yankee Cannonball; if you step out of line and wander to the Starblaster, you have to go to the end of the line.
Before this analogy goes completely off the rails like a broken-down roller coaster, let me return to my point. Students are engaged in an economic transaction, and should be encouraged to make the most of that transaction (as well as get everything they are entitled to as a result of that transaction). However, most people misunderstand the nature of that transaction. By the time you get to the classroom – by the time you find yourself in a position to be arguing with a faculty member – you have already completed that transaction and have been given what you are due.
*Students also often come in asking for some chance to earn “extra points,” some undefined notion of help that might push them over some much-feared boundary (the failing student who needs “just a few more points” to pass, the graduating student who needs “just a few more points” to earn credit toward graduation, etc.). I’ve seen a variety of low-stakes assignments fit this need: the short report written to prove a student attended an event on campus, the short reflective piece demonstrating that the student has learned something (even having learned the lesson of not turning work in late), the creative piece that somehow proves the student is “engaged” in something. I have a pretty hard rule when it comes to extra credit: no.
**For the purposes of this post, I am ignoring that fact that many students are not paying tuition. Many students have their tuition paid for by student loan companies. The students will eventually have to pay those companies back – with obscene interest – but those students are not in fact paying for their education, not yet anyway. (In other words, those students are not engaged in a financial transaction with the university, but with a third party.) Sometimes, when students get very belligerent, I ask them to produce their receipts; I ask them to show me proof that they paid their tuition. If you want to play the role of the customer, in other words, then do it right.
***Multiple times at SUNY Potsdam, faculty have been explicitly told that our goal is to increase the number of tuition-paying students. This goal is more important than any other goal we may be engaged in. To give one example, graduate students pay more in tuition per credit hour than undergraduate students at SUNY Potsdam. We have been told by multiple administrators to do whatever we can to recruit graduate students. Departments have all been told to create or expand graduate programs, regardless of how this affects our ability to contribute to undergraduate programs (majors, minors, general education). We have been told explicitly that we will be developing all graduate programs on existing resources, meaning that there will be no investment by the university in these programs.
****If they were, I’d be able to make more money. Most semesters, most of my classes fill very quickly. Every semester, I have students asking to be added into full classes or put on waiting lists for open seats. If students were entering into financial transactions with me individually, I could make money by charging students for granting such requests. I could also sell seats in my classes to the highest bidders, driving up costs based on demand. Hmm…the more I think of this, the more I like it. My course on Film Adaptations of Graphic Novels next semester would, I bet, be a pretty high-priced ticket.
^Unlike Canobie Lake Park, parking at SUNY Potsdam is not free.
^^Of course, all analogies are imperfect. In this instance, not all students can register at the same time; upperclassmen register earlier than underclassmen. I’m torn on this, and I won’t go into detail here (but if you’re curious, I am happy to explain in the comments).
^^^I’m saving for another day the post explaining why tuition, at least at public institutions, should be free. Public education should be 100% tax-supported and free for all who desire it. But it’s going to take me a while to figure out how we can implement that system and still pay college presidents like CEOs.
^^^^At SUNY Potsdam, some Education majors must double-major in their area of teaching competency; others need only complete a specialization (which is essentially a minor). The former can drop Education and still graduate on time (provided they keep their second major); the latter often cannot.