Why Don't Students Strike? Because They Think They're Customers

Carlo Allegri / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Rob had a really great post this morning asking why American college students don’t strike the way students at universities around the world sometimes do. There are a variety of theories—you should read the piece—but I was struck by this quote from Angus Johnston, a professor at the City University of New York who researches student activism:

“Students in the United States today are living in conditions of economic precarity that didn’t exist in the 1960s,” he said. “As students have gotten poorer on average, tuition has gone up. And so they’re getting squeezed on both sides. They have a lot less ability to withstand the effects of … losing a semester, because if that happens, they’re gonna be screwed.”

That rings true, but I think it undersells the effects of rising tuition on campus, and what that might do to student activism. It’s not just that students have to pay more, which makes them more nervous about losing money. As tuition rates have risen—and particularly as state governments have drawn down funding for public universities—public and private universities have both increasingly come to look at students as sources of revenue. (For-profit universities just take this idea to its logical conclusion.)

That means that students come to be seen as “customers” by college administrators, and in turn they start to see themselves that way too. That has radical effects for how they interact with the university. Instead of being part of a bigger community, composed of scholars, teachers, learners, and others—a sort of “academical village,” to borrow Thomas Jefferson’s phrase—students show up, get the service for which they’ve paid, and leave with a diploma. Doing that leads to inevitable economic decisions: prioritizing fancy dorms, high-quality facilities, and popular eating options over faculty hiring, for example. Professors complain that students feel entitled and comfortable asking for better grades.

But it also makes it harder to see why you’d go on strike. Striking only makes sense if you see yourself as part of the integrated community, where the university’s direction is determined by a negotiation between adminstrators, faculty, students, and staff. If you’re a customer, though? Even leaving aside what you can afford, paying tuition, and then going on strike seems less sensible if you think classes are a product that you’ve purchased. It’s like going to Chipotle, paying for your burrito, then refusing to eat it.