Students Are Not ATMs | Just Visiting

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There is a lot of evidence that what matters most in college in terms of future outcomes is not the choice of school, or major, but the types of experiences one has. 

The Gallup-Purdue index showed strong correlations between things like having a faculty mentor and future happiness at work and a sense of overall well-being. In How College Works, by Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs did a longitudinal study of students over years finding, among other things, “Human contact, especially face to face, seems to have an unusual influence on what students choose to do, on the directions their careers take, and on their experience of college. It has leverage, producing positive results far beyond the effort put into it.”

In light of what we know about the benefit of increasing the contact between students and faculty and between student and their peers, one would think that Michigan State’s recent announcement of restoring a previous requirement that students spend the first two years living on campus (as opposed to just freshman year), would be welcome.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Students and alumni are calling the move a “money grab,” meant to recoup lost revenue. Michigan State student government is calling for their “voices to be heard” before the decision is put into action.

To students, it looks like the continuation of a longstanding trend, institutions using students as their chief revenue source and orienting operations around that reality. Increased tuition, an ever expanding list of fees for athletics, technology, health, etc, and now expanded requirements that make student dining and housing dollars captive to institutional auxiliary services have students serving the role of ATM to the institution. When schools need money, they find a way to pull it out of student pockets.

I can hear the cries of “What else are we supposed to do?” as I type. State legislatures have largely abandoned their responsibilities. Federal aid to mitigate the costs of the pandemic is a drop in the bucket compared to the need. 

I get it, but continuing to treat students as an inexhaustible supply of funding that the institution can tap into as necessary is not the way forward. We are, in fact, past the exhaustion point of that particular operational mindset whether everyone realizes it or not. 

The harm that operating from this mindset has done is apparent in the backlash MSU experienced after the announcement. 

There is no trust, no partnership in these relationships. It is impossible to sell the mission-oriented benefits to such a policy as long as it is so apparent that operations and revenue generation are the primary concerns. That living on campus could very well be more expensive than available alternatives is a betrayal of the institution to act in the best interests of students. 

No amount of touting increased graduation rates for students who live on campus after the first year can make up for the poisoning of the atmosphere caused by making these policies mandatory. Coercion is incompatible with education. Whatever benefits from being on-campus longer may accrue will be overwhelmed by the distrust and resentment caused by eliminating student agency over the choice.

If schools are sincere about these moves being mission-driven, they must preserve student agency and make these on-campus options truly attractive for their genuine benefits. 

If institutions cannot survive except by treating students as ATMs coughing up cash to keep the doors open, they’re already doomed. This is cruise ship thinking, get the passengers on board then figure out how to bleed them further with previously hidden mandatory fees and the inevitable upsell. 

This mentality is, in fact, anti-institution. Institutions have a community mission beyond generating revenue.

The current operational mindset that dominates public higher education, suggests that these places are in fact not enduring institutions, but are instead temporary and provisional, operational only as long as we can keep the revenue flowing. This is how too many institutions have operated (or been forced to operate) for too long, and what has led to our present state of crisis. 

Like a lot of our current crises, this one was not unforeseen. A humble blogger existing largely outside the institutional structures of higher ed like me has been bleating about them for almost a decade, and I am not alone.

My most recent book is a desperate cry to think about these things differently. I firmly believe it is not too late, but that hope diminishes when I read news like what MSU is doing and how they’re doing it.

I hope the community pushback is heeded as a warning. 



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