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Vincent P. Calabrese

Professor Michael Goeller

201 College! – Final Paper

15 December 2016


 Consumer ideals are infiltrating college institutions, as universities are beginning to marketize at an increasing rate, partly due to privatization. They have come to adopt similar principles of the private lenders they are dependent upon and now advertize in a way that supports the perception that education is a tangible product that can be purchased. This promotes the “student-as-consumer” mentality that is rather extrinsic in nature. Social-Determination Theory (SDT) suggests that an emphasis on extrinsic values will cause performance and wellbeing to curtail, which is evident in student behaviors. Furthermore, Erich Fromm's humanistic psychology relates to this theory and would classify most of today's students as confined to the having mode that is provoked by consumerism and focuses on possessions. This gives further insight into the negative effects that consumerism can have on the unconscious mind. Consumption can never lead to long-lasting fulfillment because extrinsic rewards cannot be incorporated within, yet the mind is susceptible to it. Human beings have an inner propensity to seek their inherent worth, but the student-as-consumer approach to education curtails the ability for one to take that inward journey. In general, this approach to education is found to be detrimental to the educational process and cognitive functioning. It is crucial for institutions to restore a stronger emphasis on intrinsic value so that transformational qualities can be fostered.

Psychologically Imprisoned: How the Student-as-Consumer is Intrinsically Depleted

Are consumer principles that intrude modern institutions restricting intrinsic motivation and therefore ruining the value of education? There are an infinite amount of reasons why someone might engage in an activity, but all can simplify to one of two types: intrinsic or extrinsic. Self-Determination Theory (SDT), formulated by Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci from the University of Rochester, defines intrinsic motivation as “the inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one\'s capacities, to explore, and to learn.” In contrast, one is extrinsically motivated when performing a task to obtain a separable outcome, like money or some other tangible reward. The theory ultimately proposes that performance and wellbeing are diminished when extrinsic motivation dominates (Ryan & Deci 70-74). Institutions harbor intrinsic value as they allow us to come together to exercise our innate propensity to seek our inherent worth and the way we should regulate behavior. If the modern college institution supports extrinsic motivation, it would therefore have troubling impacts on students and future generations. It is becoming more and more evident that this is the unfortunate reality of our modern world.

Consumer ideals have infiltrated higher education and elicit a restrictive mindset. This is partly due to privatization, or the shift from public to private funding. Institutions now depend heavily on their private lenders and are induced to operate in a similar market-driven nature that focuses more on profit than education (Collinge 4-6; Steele & Williams para. 12; Nathan 151). They engage in marketing strategies that attempt to promote a desirable university “brand” that students and parents will buy. This fosters the “student-as-consumer” mindset by which students are both perceived and tended to as consumers (Molesworth et al. 277; Cheney et al. n. pag Bunce et al. 1). Molesworth et al. specifically relate to To Have or to Be? by Erich Fromm, once one of the world's leading psychoanalysts, and claim that the mindset makes undergraduates “seek to ‘have a degree' rather than ‘be learners'” (278). Fromm says a having mode focuses on possessions whereas a being mode focuses on inherent worth and that the former is detrimental while the latter is favorable. Based on SDT, these modes are essentially the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation respectively. By viewing education as a product, it creates a mindset that distances students and professors away from the value of education. Students are becoming distracted from academics. The classroom environment is ravaged because of a false false sense of entitlement among students and a rise in adjunct professors who are pressured into being less rigorous. Students are increasingly cheating and most select majors contingent on salary and not interests, despite our innate propensity to engage in something we relate to. It is clearly evident that the student-as-consumer mindset that is promoted by modern institutions hinders intrinsic motivation and therefore contributes to a crisis that is diminishing student performance and the value of education.


Universities directly promote consumerism and establish a materialistic environment that distracts students from their academics. It is clear that schools have and support the student-as-consumer mindset while they try to attract students by advertising themselves as providers of tangible services (Bunce et al. 2). Schools should not be advertised this way because education is not a tangible service at all. Jeffrey Selingo's account of the tour at High Point University in North Carolina demonstrates the problem in detail:

When you start the tour, faint sounds of classical music are piped in from hidden outdoor speakers as you pass life-sized statues of Galileo, Jefferson, and Aristotle. The stunned looks on the faces of parents and students continued at almost every turn: There's a first-run movie theater, a steak-house, outdoor hot tubs, and free food all over campus, including a roaming ice cream truck. (32)

He goes on to argue that students at marketized colleges like High Point feel the effects because they are spending to less time on academics (33). As it is seen here, universities are going the extra mile in promoting recreation over education because they want their university to appear the most desirable. They are increasingly satisfying the demands of their paying students and it is ruining the academic structure. The impact of this is evident in a High Point freshman review:

I\'ve heard of many people choosing to attend HPU because of superficial reasons like how beautiful the campus is and all the perks we get as students. These people think it will be an easy ride to a degree and they can just party all the time. Then they hit mid-terms or finals and realize they\'re failing. This is a university. Yes, it\'s really nice and it gets compared to Disney World frequently, but you still have to study and attend class. (“High Point University” n. pag)

Her experience demonstrates that students are falling into the marketing trap for the wrong reasons and that education is likely to come second to campus life. When the student-as-consumer mindset is supported, campuses stop challenging their students to take part in the journey to self-discovery and knowledge because commitment, discipline, and persistence are needed (Martinez-Saenz & Schoonover para. 2). Leisure time activities are supported more, and the extrinsic nature of campus life dominates. Institutions used to actively support a challenging and transformative environment, but now they only pitch that they do without putting their words to much action. They seem more concerned with marketing and make a profit at every turn. Campuses are becoming more luxurious at the expense of student performance.


This type of environment also cripples the intrinsic relationship between students and professors. Consumers always make a transaction and instantly receive the product they have purchased. In terms of education, it is an intrinsic process that is experienced and earned rather than an external product that can be held (Cheney et al. n. pag). The student-as-consumer therefore feels a false sense of entitlement to their education and are more likely to complain (Bunce et al. 3). Also, from this comes the notion that “the customer is always right” which does not work for education. Students go to college to find a path in life that fits their interests, and this takes some searching. Universities try to measure an experience that cannot be measured and make it seem like the outcomes are readily acquirable in some kind of package. This is known to some as the “measurement mania” (Cheney et al. n. pag). This idea that the experience is a readily attainable package causes students to become very demanding of the universities and services, including faculty. They are spending a lot for their education and come to somewhat expect good service—including that A+—while many teachers succumb and make their classes less rigorous because of the pressure to satisfy the paying customers. This is a huge problem with adjunct professors, which the student-as-consumer (university and student) favors.

The Problem with Adjuncts.

Institutions are increasingly hiring adjuncts who face many obstacles in maintaining a healthy relationship with students that promotes proper learning. These professors want full-time jobs but are only taken as part-time because it is more flexible and profitable for the institution. The easiest way for adjuncts to get rehired each semester is if student evaluations are positive, and the easiest way to ensure good evaluations is to be an easy grader (Selingo 20). On top of this, the American Association of University Professors claims academic freedom is depleted because adjuncts cannot acquire tenure and are therefore likely to feel less inclined to express their opinions. They also face low hours, wages, and benefits (Kingkade 1-3). These poor conditions can be seen within Mary Grabar's experience as an adjunct:

At the state university we had one large room called ‘The Bullpen.' It contained cast-off desks and chairs. If your office hour happened to not be at a popular time, you would be lucky and get a place to sit, along with a chair for your student. I seemed to get the desk with the worst chair, one which required a delicate balancing act, as it wobbled precipitously. (para. 8)

Such an environment shows there is less one-on-one time for students who need it and an overall lack of academic structure. There is no intrinsic connection between students and professors because everything becomes distorted by money on both sides due to the consumer-orientation that seemingly spreads like cancer throughout the institution.


There are even higher rates of cheating in the classroom setting due to the student-as-consumer mindset that dominates in higher education. Since there is an innate propensity to seek fulfillment and students have the idea they are purchasing rights to their education, cheating for a good grade might seem reasonable for reaching that satisfaction. Bryan M. Kopp is a professor at Purdue University who experiences this in real-time and believes it has come to be viewed as acceptable. He explains that this is because students can be viewed as products since they try to make themselves salable to employers and says, “a product need never be \"truthful\" or \"honest\" or exactly as it seems; in fact, it would be extremely unusual if packaging fully disclosed everything there is to know about a product ‘in reality'” (27). He believes that consumer ideals allow for the impression that cheating can be an acceptable route to successfully beating requirement courses. Requirement courses are a problem in itself when interests do not align with majors, which will be discussed shortly.

Moreover, society should not view students as commodities because it strips them of their inherent identity and makes cheating less inwardly attributable. When extrinsic motivation prevails, we are not motivated to be worthy. We are rather motivated to possess worthiness and possessions have nothing to do with our inner selves. Therefore the guiltiness from cheating is not as easily attributed within. David Jaffe from Stanford University states, “Cheating no longer carries the stigma that it used to. Less social disapproval coupled with increased competition for admission into universities and graduate schools has made students more willing to do whatever it takes to get the A” (n. pag). This suggests that students who are viewed as consumers and view themselves as consumers are detached from their inherent worth and equated with what they have instead of who the are. They try to make themselves salable because that is all that seems to matter. If they are equated with what they have and valued for that, why should cheating be unethical? Possessions cannot be unethical because they are material, so students-as-consumers who are equated to commodities also cannot be unethical, theoretically speaking. The concept of ethics itself are stripped from the very second consumerism infiltrates the educational system, as Kopp points out. This has effects on the unconscious mind and is just another manifestation of how such an emerging approach to education can restrict development.


The student-as-consumer approach mindset that plagues higher education also pressures most students into choosing majors based solely on salary instead of interest. Debt from student loans is increasing as college becomes more and more expensive. This is happening because government grants and other forms of support for school after college cannot keep up with the tuition spikes. In order to go attend most institutions, the average student is burdened with debt instead of federal and state governments (Kantrowitz para. 5). Students and universities therefore increasingly depend on private companies for massive loans in order for college to be attainable. More than a quarter of college students are graduating with excessive debt, the average of that debt is now around $37,172.80, and total national debt is now more than $1.35 trillion (Kantrowitz para 10; “2016 Report”  para. 2). This indicates more pressure on students to succeed and make enough money to pay back the debt. The way Rebekah Nathan explains it, “ students are incurring [debt] for the sake of their education… To repay their debts, students are anticipating the need for immediate and lucrative employment after college, so they choose both ‘practical' and ‘well-paying' fields of study” (150). This is exactly what is happening, as the National Student Clearinghouse has found that STEM degrees are increasing while students who study liberal arts are declining (Bidwell para. 2). STEM majors earn about $15,500 more on average and are both more likely to be employed and hold only one full-time job, according to the Department of Education (Jacobs para. 2). But are all students really fit to be a STEM major? Of course not. Additionally, students are pressured into choosing college majors earlier today than they once were. Krystal Steinmetz writes on this subject matter and explains that there is a significant drop in undeclared first-year students. She remarks toward the end of the article, “Looking back, I wish I would have taken a year off between high school and college so I could have really put some thought into what I wanted to do with my life. It's hard to make such a huge decision when you're 18 and haven't experienced much in life” (n. pag). So, debt and the job markets seem to create economic pressure and stress the importance of employability and salaries. These things seem more important to most than taking the time to figure out what they genuinely love doing.

Less Success and Satisfaction Due To Unfitting Majors

When students choose a major they cannot relate to, it will impede academic performance and take a blow to one's personal well being. It would be great if one's interests align with a degree that offers high employability and salary because college would serve as a path to being both emotionally fulfilled and rich in a society that stresses the importance of money. However, most students are not so fortunate in this way. An article by The Career Key, an organization that provides professional help to individuals making career and educational choices, claims that students who choose majors that align with their personality and interests are more likely to earn higher grades, persist in their program, graduate on time, and be more satisfied and successful in their career. However, a recent report provides evidence that only one-third of students choose a major that they are interested in (Jones & Jones 5). Deduced from these cross-referenced findings is the fact that more than 60% of students choose majors that they are not intrinsically motivated by and are therefore more likely to struggle with school, persist in their studies, graduate late, be unfulfilled by their education, and ultimately end up unsuccessful later on in life. This could very well be why those with a student-as-consumer orientation are more likely to struggle with academics and skill development. Junior Achievement, a non-profit youth organization that helps deliver experiential programs to students, explains in a report that most students are entering the workplace lacking basic communication, problem solving, and critical thinking skills (“Are Students Prepared” 1). Intellectual development is stagnated when students do not relate to their majors.It is almost if we are restricting free will and breeding a society of unhappy, robotic people that were poorly programmed.


Consumerism causes the individual to believe that the act of consumption can lead to internal fulfillment, when in reality possessions cannot bring this. On the student-as-consumer approach, Molesworth et al. explain that students seek to have ideas and skills as if they can be acquired as possessions through the act of purchasing “rather than to know ideas as ways of seeing the world and skills as ways of acting” (280). In respect to Fromm, they explain the concept that education exists as a financial investment and how it can have a negative impact on the way students can transform their identity adequately. Students exist in Fromm's state of having that is provoked by consumerism and focuses on possessions instead of existing in the being mode that focuses on inherent worth. This is essentially the “marketing character” that he explains, which is one who tries to make themselves salable and adapts to the market in a way that they experience themselves as a commodity (147). He states, \"Modern consumers may identify themselves by the formula: I am  = what I have and what I consume.\" (27). This type of thinking is detrimental to human intellect because individuals are distracted from their inherent potentiality. The environment creates the idea that the personal self is external and therefore causes this internal, unconscious alienation.

An Unconscious Addiction.

Students will never reach a sense of fulfillment by the act of consumption and viewing themselves as a commodity. The way education is advertised creates this shift in focus from academics and intrinsic value to possessions and a race to the riches, and both consumption and the mindset it elicits become addicting to the unconscious without the individual being aware of it. Erika L. Rosenberg from the Center for Mind and Brain explains that students are susceptible to this shift because, \"First, advertisers and corporations capitalize on powerful psychological processes to strengthen automaticity in consumer behavior... Second, these nonconscious choices about consumption are driven by a need for fulfillment\" (108). Accordingly, advertisers take advantage of an innate need for fulfillment and automatic tendencies by overexposing us to ads that pair an extrinsic reward with a pleasant stimulus. The problem is that extrinsic rewards can only temporarily satisfy this innate need since they are separable from the self. Only the intrinsic rewards like the subjective ones that should be promoted by institutions can be incorporated within and long-lasting. Because of this, the unconscious mind is confined into a loop and constantly tries to resupply the fulfillment that quickly fades.

A World of Joyless Pleasures

Consumption is the easiest solution—especially when we are overexposed to products and become unconsciously familiar with them—because it conveniently requires a small amount of mental effort and awareness. Molesworth et al. accordingly argue that universities should cater to the intrinsically motivated students instead of the extrinsically motivated by allowing the space and time for introspection and transformation (281). This would be crucial to wellbeing and performance because students would be able to focus more on their identity instead of having their thoughts clouded by misconceptions about education and worldly factors. According to SDT, the external values that are emphasized—the university “brand,” rewards on campus, money—can not be internalized because they involve instrumentalities rather than genuine enjoyment (Ryan & Deci 71). Fromm explains this situation as the standoff between joy and pleasure. Pleasure, achieved by extrinsic motivation, is the temporary satiation of a desire that does not require active engagement. He explains that this engagement may be active in the sense of busyness, but not in the sense of “birth within.” Joy, on the other hand, is the everlasting satiation of a desire from active engagement that is achieved via intrinsic motivation. He notes that the behaviors elicited by consumerism causes people to forget about the variation: “It is not easy to appreciate the difference, since we live in a world of “joyless pleasures” (116). Higher education is currently a world of joyless pleasures like the rest of our consumer-driven world because of the emphasis we place on material items. In the long-run, students will remember the experiences that changed their internal values and regulations, not the free food on campus and the money they earn.


Privatization is increasingly infiltrating all aspects of our society. When it infiltrates our educational institutions, consumer ideals emerge and there are many resulting ramifications that inhibit our potentiality as human beings. As universities behave like their private lenders, they promote a student-as-consumer mindset and ruin the intrinsic value of education. The implications are exemplified by the excessive promotion of recreation and material rewards on campus, an unhealthy student-teacher relationship, cheating, selecting majors contingent on employability rather than inherent interests (and with increasing pressure to choose these majors fast), and the overall effects that consumerism has on the unconscious mind. Works by Bunce et al., Cheney et al., and Molesworth et al. relate to the work of Fromm when they explain that student-as-consumers are academically suffering because they can not experience transformative qualities. These qualities are only noticed and exercised in Fromm's to be mode, which SDT would explain as an environment that allows for the individual autonomy, competence, and relatedness—one that fosters intrinsic motivation and optimal functioning (Fromm 14; Ryan & Deci 75). Our modern culture stresses the idea that consumerism and the act of consumption itself will lead to happiness when, in fact, material possessions are literally external to the self and can only offer temporary fulfillment. Intrinsic rewards that take time and dedication to achieve are what offer long-term, self-sustaining fulfillment. The student-as-consumer mindset is simply destroying the inherent value of education. It ultimately hinders performance and wellbeing while causing us to place value in things we cannot internally relate to. We are living in a world that is currently psychologically deprived of intrinsic value because of the system we allow to exist. This system is imprisoning to the mind, but we can change that. The rising generations need to experience the revival of intrinsic value within our institutional safe havens—one of the last places could help us out of this mess.

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