Students as Customers? A Path to Losing the MarketDavid Hofmeister | Dean of the Graduate School, Friends University
Is an adult wanting to obtain an academic degree a customer? The perspective that a student is a customer of a college or university is separate from the relationship between a student and a faculty member.
The time-honored relationship between the student and the faculty—and the faculty members’ capacity to engage the student with the knowledge, skills and habits of mind expected in a learning community—lacks a customer-friendly set of academic experiences. The vibrancy and rigor in the relationship directly impacts the quality of the interactions that are focused on the student and their growth toward the expected academic outcomes.
If the institution treats older students as customers, the faculty may determine that guiding them through the wide range of expected and unanticipated learning experiences, the personal and professional growth, and the available student activities may not be achievable. The institution as a whole, along with its faculty members, must determine how best to support older students.
How does the Older Student become a Customer?
When a person is deciding to start a program of study or return to complete a degree, the many choices in the higher education market often present getting a degree as a commoditized service. There is marketing buzz and noise to grab attention through ads presented in social media, on television, across radio stations and in print. And, in attracting attention to a program or university, various marketing tactics are designed to get the prospective student to learn more or shop the institution, typically through a web site.
In these early stages of connecting the institution with the older student, the intent is to communicate the wants, desires and dreams of a better life for self and others through education. Once a connection is made, the older student quickly becomes a lead. Since each lead does not necessarily become an enrolled student, the institutional actions and interactions typically managed by a recruiter are intentional, time sensitive and focused on building a relationship. Good customer service throughout these initial interactions is essential.
At this point, customer service establishes and shapes the relationship based on the needs and desires of the prospective students by connecting them with the services provided by the college or university. These interactions are informed by the culture of the institution, and the recruiter guides how and with whom the potential student connects with in terms of financial aid, student accounts, student life, technology services, the library and the administration. Quite importantly, the recruiter, through the interactions just mentioned, set the stage for the relationship that unfolds between the student and the faculty.
Leverage Against or Invest in Adult Education
When an institution views the adult student as a customer-based revenue stream whose primary role is to contribute to the financial resources needed for other institutional operations, the recruiter and the institution develop a transactional, commoditized relationship with the student. The messages sent about speed, convenience, programming and customer service connote that learning is contained, packaged and finite. This context sets the stage for a customer relationship because faculty parachute into classes and the relationships are transactional.
In short, the message is complete the assigned work, get grades, pass classes and then get a degree.
Should Older Students Expect More?
It is time to take a step back and re-focus on the adult with meaningful, powerful learning opportunities that are not simply transactional ones focused on convenience, customer service, speed and a path to a credential. Why? The Great Recession defined the barista economy—where having a degree or not made little difference in employability. This has contributed to society questioning the value of the degree as a path to a better future.
Consequently, investing in the services needed by older students will offer market differentiation and in turn grow shrinking or stagnant programs when the focus is on the adult student as a unique person with commensurate social, emotional and intellectual needs.
Determining What To Do
There are several actions that will strengthen services for the adult learner and enable them to achieve the academic outcomes sought. The following three ideas represent investments in adult education.
The desire for convenient learning experiences should be explored through a conversation or two with a family counselor or therapist who can assist in the transitions that are forthcoming as the adult returns to college. Learning causes changes personally, professionally and in terms of family. Supporting adults and family members through these changes requires mutual understanding and the know-how to talk through the emotional changes that will occur. Often, failure to thrive is not because the academic work is too difficult. Rather, the lack of relational support for the older student undermines their success.
Along with emotional growth, adult students need support and opportunities for focused intellectual growth. The expectations of customer service and speed compete with the reality that learning takes time. It is hard work. Older students often have systems in place that require fitting in learning at the end of the day after loved ones are cared for and other matters are set aside. This may not work. Understanding how to learn is essential. Ensuring adults know how to learn will contribute to their success as they adjust support systems to truly support the learning required for the degree. Their actions enrich their interactions with faculty who recognize the interest and hard work being accomplished.
As older students work toward the desired credential, they often seek shortcuts. Harnessing and managing intellectual growth requires faculty members to establish and maintain relationships with older students. These experiences and relationships change employment and life’s opportunities as faculty members serve as mentors and coaches to help older students apply their learning into employment. Committed faculty make a significant difference in creating lifelong learners.
Older students want convenience, customer service, speed, and a path to a credential. In addition, their learning experiences must include powerful and rich social, emotional, and intellectual experiences commensurate with their capabilities and stage in life. Such experiences go beyond a customer-based model of education.
Author Perspective: Administrator