Students and Customers

Monday April 24, 2017

•  education policy •  mathematics •  public affairs •  public finance • 

This semester, I’ve been teaching a course I don’t normally teach. This has been an interesting experience. The course is wholly online, so we have “homework,” and “quizzes,” and “tests,” but these are not really different from each other. They are all open book and open Google. Except for the final exam, which has a 72-hour window, all material is given at least a week before it is due. Because of these constraints, it can be difficult to construct assessments that meaningfully gauge a student’s ability.

What I have done this semester is use the standard homework problems for “homework.” These are questions that are simple drill problems and occasional word problems. But for the “quizzes,” I have used word problems. I’ve used some from an older textbook that align with our material for the week. These problems provide a set of circumstances and then ask a series of mathematical questions about it. Those questions exercise what we learned in a meaningful way. In other words, application and analysis.

This has lead to a small, but dedicated, group of students who object to the use of word problems as assessment. The overall concern seems to be the quizzes do not reflect the material. I have given the students a lengthy explanation of how and why this assessment is both valid and best for the purpose of the course.

However, the student complaints have continued and seem to focus on the idea that as the customer, the student should have their demands met. But students are not customers…they are students. Frankly, students are not the primary obliger of funds. Setting aside the question of who may be paying for a student, we must understand that a student never pays full freight for their education.

At a public school, the taxpayer is a partner and real customer of the education provided. At a private school, the donors are. Both want to create an education population because they benefit from it. Students may be contributing through tuition, but that’s not paying the full way. We ask students to pay for the same reason health insurance companies require a copayment for service. It places some cost on the consumer.

A cost-sharing arrangement like a copayment does not meaningfully reduce costs for an insurance company directly. The cost-sharing deters the use of insurance for things that could have been prevented another way. Economically, we call say copayments reduce moral hazard. The consumer avoids unnecessary expenses for the insurance regime because the consumer too has some skin in the game. But in a doctor’s office, you should never get confused and think you’re the customer. The insurance company is.

Similarly, students pay tuition to keep some skin in the game. But the real customer, as always, is who is really paying the bill.

Image by Jimmy Baikovicius / Flickr.