Let the (academic) buyer beware

  • Article by: CHUCK CHALBERG
  • Updated: April 18, 2014 - 7:10 PM

There’s talk of publishing college course evaluations. But why stop there?

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Should teacher evaluations submitted by past students be made available to future students? The University of Minnesota is debating this question. At this late stage of the academic game, why not? After all, we’ve been careening down the “student as consumer” road for a good long time. Why stop now?

And let’s be honest: The student is a consumer. This has always been the case to some extent. But now that the cost of a college education has exploded beyond reason and justification, the old notion that “for this amount of studying I think I deserve this grade” has given way to “for this amount of money I deserve at least a B.”

The “consumer” of higher education isn’t quite like a shopper at the local grocery store. Last I checked, no cashier administers a test that the buyer has to pass before taking home the produce and canned goods in the cart. (At least, not yet. Health food fanatics reading this might get ideas). For that matter, no grocery store charges a fee, as colleges do, the moment the customer enters the store — you pay at the end, after you’ve decided what, if anything, you think is worth having.

Nonetheless, all students are consumers. They might not all deserve an A, but they do deserve the best and most demanding courses their instructors can provide. If they’re shopping for something other than that, they’re free to mention this in their evaluations — and to shop elsewhere. In any case, it only stands to reason that every student-consumer should know as much as possible about what he or she might be getting into before registering for a class.

Should this include publishing the results of student evaluations of their professors? We can debate how raw or refined this brand of sweets — or sours — should be served, but the information should be available. It might well include notes on teaching methodology; the “b.s.” quotient per lecture (or permitted on exams), and the prevalence or absence of ideology. The student as informer? No. More truth in labeling? Yes.

There was a time when the phrase “publish or perish” applied only to individual faculty members up for promotion or tenure. Today, we sit atop a higher education bubble that is bound to burst. “Publish or perish,” therefore, is about to take on a different meaning. We can debate the numbers, but in the not-too-distant future, a lot of colleges are likely to perish — and many should, especially if they lack transparency.

So let’s not stop with this single piece of information. Student evaluations ought to be viewed in a larger context. If published, these evaluations ought to include the grade received by the student (and maybe the grade he or she expected). Attempts also ought to be made to obtain evaluations from alumni five or 10 or 20 years down the road.

Colleges should also publish the grade distribution for each class, and include it on transcripts, to increase their transparency for potential employers or for grad and professional school admissions committees. They might like to know not just a student’s grade in a particular course, but the percentage of the class that received that particular grade. An A by its lonesome is one thing. An A with a percentage number beside it might be quite another.

Then there is the matter of the syllabi. These documents have essentially become contracts. They are, or ought to be, public documents. Occasionally, I have had a student ask to see a syllabus before registering for a course. In this age of instant communication, the student has the document in question immediately. But why not be proactive? Let’s publish syllabi online just as we publish schedules.

I’m not so naive as to think that every student is seeking a schedule full of demanding classes. Nor am I sufficiently cynical to believe that students want nothing but what were once called “gut” courses. That said, something that’s been called the “faculty-student nonaggression pact” does exist.

The unspoken “deal” is this: The teacher will make few demands on the student, if the student makes few demands on the teacher. How widespread are such arrangements? My “gut feeling” is that they are more common than schools would care to admit. With greater transparency, student-consumers would have a better idea of how to mix and match a schedule.

Actually, there are all sorts of consumers in — and of — higher education. Tuition-paying parents, taxpayers and legislators are consumers, as well. All stand to benefit by knowing a good deal more than they do about what’s going on in college classrooms, especially as costs rise, budgets shrink and jobs disappear. This will remain true until — and after — the higher education bubble finally does burst. The only difference is that colleges will then begin disappearing, as well.

The whole process might be improved if our new transparent evaluation forms were introduced with this word of advice, given by historian Bernard De Voto in a letter to would-be college student, who thought his high school teachers were by and large pretty darn dull:

“My dear boy, the world is under no obligation to entrance you. There was no thought of pleasing you when it was created … There is nothing interesting or dull in any subject you have studied or will ever study. The interest and dullness inhere in you …”

 

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg teaches American history at Normandale Community College in Bloomington.

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