Administrators, the humanists tried to warn you. In fact, faculty and staff from all over the university probably tried to warn you. Language matters.

As colleges and universities moved online this semester, calls for tuition refunds have mounted. A Cornish College of the Arts student declares, “I am spending thousands of dollars—and I’m going into debt for the rest of my life—to sit on my couch.“  She continues, “I feel like I’m not getting what I paid for.” A Johns Hopkins student says, “Our faculty are doing a good job of working with us,” but then follows with, “It shouldn’t just be a part of the business model where, no matter what happens, you have to pay the same amount. The cost needs to reflect some of the realities.” And a New York University senior complains, “It isn’t the education we paid for.” Thousands of students have signed online petitions and one law firm has set up a complaint website and started suing universities, arguing that, “There is some product being delivered that has value, but it does not have the same value of what students paid for.”

For years, college and university administrators have increasingly used the language of business, backed by neoliberal contentions and policies, to talk about higher education. Our students are “customers.” Administrators demand “data-driven” assessments and eschew educational goals that can’t be quantitatively measured with supposed ease. Colleges and universities have spent billions on elaborate fitness centers and luxurious dorms to lure students to their campuses—promising the “good life” to 18 year-olds. Meanwhile, teaching has been outsourced to contingent faculty, wreaking havoc on the lives of those who answered one of the highest calls one can have—to teach—while the ranks of highly paid administrators have ballooned. They talk about synergy, agility, best practices, core competencies, entrepreneurship, and SWOT analyses. I could live the rest of my days without ever hearing the word “leverage” again.

Students are “sold” on one college or another and there seems often to be no delineation between selling the amenities of a college and selling the college itself. College has become just another consumption choice with students opting for one “brand” over another. The idea that they are “consumers” of a college or university becomes the way that they move through the educational process—and business metaphors, like students as consumers, become the way that they begin to view their educational paths. As this metaphor guides more and more of their thoughts and actions, it also becomes more difficult to identify as a linguistic construction—it becomes “common sense.” And this process—a process grounded in the words we‘ve chosen—has serious consequences for higher education.

All of this language and maneuvering has an impact. It impacts how we see ourselves, how the public sees us, and most importantly, how prospective and current students see us and our role in their educational and personal development. This business language, grounded in consumption metaphors, has changed the way people think about us. And this language not only helps constitute our world and how we function in it, it also defines who we are and what we do for the public and those we serve as educators.

We first saw these consequences in response to the 2008 Great Recession, after which business-minded administrators more strongly supported majors with very clear paths to jobs to mollify parents and prospective students concerned about future economies. “Cost-benefit analyses” were used to justify extinguishing arts and humanities programs because what possible good can such majors be if they don’t make money for the university (Never mind the fact that this assumption is effectively challenged by Christopher Newfield.)? Why encourage students to major in the humanities or arts if they can’t make livable wages after graduation (Never mind the mountain of evidence proving that this assumption simply isn’t true.)? Still, majors in the humanities and arts were cut based on the incorrect and unsupported presumption that their graduates wouldn’t get a good “return on investment.” And other majors, particularly those in STEM and business, were trumpeted (again, based largely on fallacious notions of what students earn with those degrees alongside the rhetoric/myth of the all-encompassing “STEM crisis”) as superior because they supposedly offered a better “ROI.” This is not to say that earning a livable salary isn’t a fair concern. It is. But the language and metaphors of business focused often only on salary, as opposed to also considering what areas of study and careers would make graduates happy throughout their lives, concerns that are not mutually exclusive. These tendencies encouraged the public to measure our institutions primarily by “ROI” and not the extent to which students left our campuses better prepared to live truly meaningful lives.

And so here we are. Fast forward twelve years and COVID-19 has citizens who view higher education as simply a commodity coming for all of us this time, not just the humanities and arts. Consumption metaphors and the business-speak that supports them, generously slathered all over colleges and universities for years now, have changed the way that many citizens see all of higher education. We are not teachers called to serve, we are employees not delivering an exact product “bought.” Our courses are not places to grow citizens and thinkers, they are “units” my students put in their “shopping carts” when they register for classes each semester. And we are not humans doing our very best in a situation none of us signed up for, we are workers delivering a “product” that isn’t rising to the “value” of what’s been paid for.

To be fair, it is unclear how many students are behind the movement to sue universities for tuition reimbursement. I have tried to show my students grace and, by and large, they have returned that favor. I’ve listened to my colleagues agonize over how to best teach in these circumstances and the concern and care I’ve seen students, faculty, and staff show each other has been heartwarming. And still, there are students lawyering up to sue us. These students are navigating through this horrible situation using the consumption mindset that our institutions fostered. And so we shouldn’t be surprised by this response.

COVID-19 is devastating. But as Julio Vincent Gambuto wrote, it’s also given us a chance to think about what our relationship to capitalism should be once we’re on the other side of this tragedy. Higher education needs to think about that, too. We need to rethink our relationship to our students, who are not and never were our “customers,” and who, whether they realize it or not right now, rely on us to mold them into good citizens, not just good employees.

We should think seriously about where we want to go from here and how we want our students and the public to think about us. Do we want to be seen as a public good or a consumer good? My perspective is that the more we are seen as a public good, the harder it may be for states to continue cutting funding, thus leading to higher tuition for students. Looking at this question from a different angle, what good has all of this consumer language really done for the academy? Language creates and sustains reality, but it can also challenge and restructure reality, too. Let’s be smarter moving forward. Colleges and universities are given the responsibility and privilege of educating not just employees, but also citizens. Moving away from consumption-based language will not only benefit our institutions, it will also encourage our students to see themselves as much more than just consumers. And that’s a change worth taking seriously and fighting for.

E. Michele Ramsey is an associate professor of communication arts and sciences and women’s studies at Penn State, Berks. She is the co-author of Major Decisions: College, Career, and the Case for the Humanities, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2020.