College is not a product


Kris Long, Print Editor-in-Chief

“Rock Chalk!” yells the recent University of Kansas business school alumnus presenting a slideshow full of buzzwords to a group of high school seniors and me. I think I’m supposed to respond “Jayhawk!” but stay quiet in case I’m wrong. 

It’s the first stop of my KU campus visit and I’m already confused. The guy from marketing continues going through his “talking points,” as he calls them. 

“You know what’s crazy?” he asks. “KU is the only place in the world where you can be a Jayhawk!” 

Apparently, I’m earning a bespoke degree. He transitions to a video displaying Jayhawker life next, which involves a lot of people spontaneously dancing. Nobody told me college would require such a good sense of rhythm. He assures me that choosing KU means the job of my dreams, the best friend I could ever have and finding my soulmate, all at a bargain price. 

But I didn’t come to Lawrence, or any other college, to buy The Hot New Thing or be treated like a customer. I didn’t come to watch a 45-minute infomercial that could have been – after changing a few words here and there – for an exercise bike, allergy medication, vodka or an education. I came because I wanted to know what kind of programs it offers and see how housing works. 

It isn’t just KU either. Every college in my inbox from Columbia to a technical school in Idaho uses the same advertising strategy. Students are customers. And if students are customers, then colleges are businesses. Except that they aren’t, and treating them like they are creating a multitude of problems. 

The purpose of a business is to make a profit for its shareholders, while the purpose of a university is to educate people. These goals conflict. If a university’s priority is raising revenue its main concern is getting as many students as possible to apply and attend while paying as much tuition as possible. Universities will do this by mailing out colorful advertisements and putting money into expensive, beautiful buildings. They’ll compete to hire – and pay – the best football coaches to coach the best teams to bring in more students. 

The problem is, all of this focus on marketing to 17-year-olds and their anxious parents takes funds that could be allocated to useful programs. Good education takes money towards materials, good staff with competitive salaries to teach great classes, and other costs like research facilities. These causes fall behind the features easily shown on college tours and advertising that gets students to visit in the first place.

If colleges are businesses and students are customers and customers are always right, then students are always right. That’s a problem in a classroom, when the students are infallibly not always right. That’s the point: they’re learning. Treating students like the paying customers they are could mean censoring divisive content to avoid upsetting people, making classes easier to pass, or cutting less popular programs for ones with more interest despite the importance of the content. It’s antithetical to education – the intention of which is to challenge people – to keep everyone comfortable and having fun.

It’s not to say that college is purely about academics. College is social development and the first community students belong to in their adult life, so having a nice campus and sports programs are beneficial. The problem is, as tax dollars run dry and most college money comes from tuition, the emphasis on flashy advertising campaigns overtakes the original purpose of a college education: to be educated. 

Asking universities to stop using funds to advertise their programs to students like products to consumers is a difficult request in an environment where tuition dollars keep institutions afloat. The solution to this is a public commitment to higher education. De-commercializing higher education allows colleges to spend money more efficiently and on things they value, rather than what will earn them money. I’m not paying for an experience or product, I am (unfortunately) paying for my right to be an educated person who understands much of the world around them and is qualified for my future career. Education is not a tourist attraction or theme park, so let’s stop treating it like one.