Take the bidding and PayPal out of eBay.com, and you’re left with an online marketplace that looks a lot like the University’s system of registering for classes on Wolverine Access.

Both websites allow users to shop through countless items to find one that fits their needs. With the off-chance their favorite item is bid on by someone else – or filled to capacity – experienced members on each site have learned they may have to fight to win. The aggressive approach taken by users of each site, along with the pop-up congratulatory messages on both that appear once an item has been successfully obtained, suggests their shared objective: To shop victoriously. For eBay, this objective has become its promotional slogan; for Wolverine Access, this objective has made people more obsessed with enrolling in a particular class than actually participating in an educational experience.

These similarities, though a bit of a stretch, hint at the consumer-directed quality of class registration, which has begun to spill over to many other corners of the University.

Once students have successfully “purchased” a class during registration, they assume they will receive a product in line with their initial expectations. It’s almost as though students enter classes with the consumerist expectation that, because they are paying to be there, classes should be catered to their demands and they have some control over what transpires. A professor wrote a letter to The New York Times in February 2006 reflecting on this mentality that more and more college students are starting to adopt: “The students pay to enroll in a university, they expect service, and if they aren’t happy with the product (the grade) they receive, they reject it, just as if they were in a restaurant and had to return an overcooked steak.”

“Rejecting” the product may seem like an overstatement. This is a college education we’re talking about. Students have to work for their grades and degrees and shouldn’t just drop out if they are unsatisfied. It is an extremist perspective to think that students actually want to have control over their professors and that students assume they will get good grades because they are paying to be enrolled. Still, the underlying consumerist attitude of students, and the pressures instructors feel as a result of students’ attitudes, is undeniable. From sites like RateMyProfessors.com to students’ expectations of review sessions and complete outlines of their impending exams in advance and requesting that teachers throw out exam questions they got wrong, it’s clear students are high-maintenance consumers.

Whether the neediness and aggressiveness of students is a new trend or an innate quality just recently highlighted with technological advances is hard to judge. Students’ demands aren’t quantitatively calculable, but in a world where 5.0 is the new 4.0 in terms of GPA and graduate school is the new undergrad in terms of gaining marketable job skills, there is good reason to assume that students have become more demanding of their colleges and teachers.

Evidence such as the rise of students’ GPAs at top universities around the country also suggests a growth in students’ pushiness. Grade inflation, which has been examined most recently by Stanford University and publicly commented on by Harvard and Princeton Universities, is undeniably a problem. It shows that teachers may be doling out good grades just to ameliorate students, who now have the potential to affect their job status via negative evaluations, complaints to department chairs and, in extreme cases, legal action.

Students wanting greater influence over their college experience isn’t in itself a bad thing. It should be reassuring to know that students are being active in their education and discussing their grades with professors rather than being complacent. But the problem at hand is not that students are too aggressive in the classroom. Rather it is the consequence of students’ creating consumer-direct education and losing out on the educational experience because they are too caught up with logistics or feeling provided for by their college.

When students’ consumptive attitudes – which are apparent on this campus with the ubiquity of apparel and the consistently long lines at coffee and sandwich shops that produce items worth a fraction of their selling price – start to affect their education, there are heavy consequences.

As the director of research at the American Association of University Professors wrote for a summer 2006 meeting, “If a college degree is nothing more than a commodity, a product to be purchased after comparison shopping for the best value among competing ‘brands,’ then academic freedom . may very well be seen as irrelevant.”

Theresa Kennelly is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at thenelly@umich.edu.

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