Published on 2014/05/23

Focusing on Customer Service: Higher Education and the “Degree Mill” Debate

AUDIO | Focusing on Customer Service: Higher Education and the “Degree Mill” Debate
Customer service is not detrimental to higher education’s future; in fact, it’s critical to the success of students during their period of enrollment and through their career.
The following interview is with Becky Takeda-Tinker, president of Colorado State University (CSU) Global Campus. Non-traditional students behave more like consumers than the average student, and those focused on professional outcomes are typically more demanding of their institutions than those working toward a degree for their personal development. This requires institutions to provide a high level of customer service, which itself is a hot-button topic of debate in the postsecondary industry. In this interview, Takeda-Tinker discusses the “customer service versus diploma mill” debate and shares her thoughts on the importance of treating students as customers.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is the customer service mentality important for today’s higher education leaders?

Becky Takeda-Tinker (BTT): We see customer service as key for student engagement, retention and completion leading to graduation. Regarding engagement, we see today that higher education enrolment is down across the nation. We know from the Gallup poll from the summer of 2013 that 50 percent of Americans did not believe college was worth the investment, according to USAToday. With the slower enrollment growth and increased skepticism regarding the value of higher education, we really believe institutions need to do more to attract and retain students. On the flip side, we’re seeing an increase in non-degree education and, so, we also see that with increased customer service, you can meet the needs of potential customers that can provide institutions with new students they may not otherwise be able to attain.

In the area of retention, we know that 75 percent of students today are non-traditional, meaning they don’t live on campus, attend school full time or have school as their primary activity. They have all these distractions and they need help to maintain a focus and to stay on track with their degree completion and their course work. Institutions need to do whatever they can to keep their students engaged and marching toward graduation. We know, from our students at CSU Global, that they continue to face all these external life issues that cause them to want to leave us so they can do whatever they need to do, so we have to provide support that allows them to navigate the process and requirements of school, provide them with the flexibility to take brief periods of time off from school with the ability to jump back in every month, and provide things like tuition guarantees in our policy to help them financially prepare in advance of enrollment and to stay in school.

We believe our students are our customers who are paying good money, who are going into debt, to attend our campus and it’s our job to ensure they’re not only receiving a rigorous education that will help them get a job in the future, but that they’re also able to understand and navigate the requirements of CSU Global.

We call that attention and understanding, and I guess other places and organizations call it customer service.

Evo: What does “customer service” actually mean in the postsecondary context?

BTT: Customer service in higher education, from our perspective, is the provision of support to help our students stay focused and on track with their educational goals by understanding their needs and working to meet them at least halfway or more. That service can include human resource time to make a personal connection with students, to understand their challenges, their goals and what their financial and academic abilities are. We have built our infrastructure to address their needs and provide service, which is now being considered customer service.

We also have ongoing communication and a consistent point of contact for the duration of a student’s academic program with us so they always know where they can call. We have flexibility in scheduling — 12 terms a year so that if a student needs to take off some time, they can go do that and they can pop back in because we have a start date that’s every month and our terms are eight weeks. We offer every class every term so students can keep working toward their degree.

We also have 24/7 tech support and there’s live tutoring and live library access, and we will work to return student contact within 24 hours and 72 hours for grading. The students receive this continual feedback and they know what to expect and therefore what they have to deliver.

Evo: How do you respond to critics of postsecondary customer service who say institutions that go this route run the risk of becoming “degree mills”?

BTT: We hear that from traditional universities, primarily. It’s really interesting because an institution that seeks to help its students with services beyond academic learning is doing just that; helping the students with services that go beyond academic learning. So it’s just a more holistic perspective on what it takes to get students to graduation. Non-traditional students have all these distractions and if they don’t have this level of help and support that they really need, they will not stay in school and they will not graduate. It’s doing nobody any good to get them in and have them fall out.

If we were to be critical of an institution that acts like a factory or a diploma mill, you have to look at very traditional universities who have not changed their model of educating students since World War II. There was an efficiency we learned during that war in executing the model, the factory process, for adults. They came out of high school, took the required classes, submitted to the established processes and came out with a degree. I was one of those students and, while it worked for me, the nation and the world have dynamically changed since then. Individualism and customization has really become the norm more than the exception, and with that comes all the support you have to have around different needs and unique requests.

The ability to address that change isn’t a negative; it’s really a matter of survival for institutions and a matter of success for the students.

Evo: What impact does robust customer service have on students?

BTT: At CSU Global, we know we’re able to attract graduate students at a rate that exceeds the national statistics, particularly for public institutions and even more so for non-traditional learners. Ninety-six percent of our alumni reported that they’re working for pay, 38 percent have received a promotion since graduation and 23 percent have been able to change careers. From that data, I would say that robust customer service, as defined by CSU Global, is providing a pathway for non-traditional learners to effectively complete their degrees and to succeed in a global society. They’re competing and they’re achieving and they’re doing very well. While we provide all sorts of support services and while we are always very much attuned to their needs, they’re succeeding. They’re not only graduating, they’re able to get and keep those jobs and then they’re able to get promoted and switch careers based on what they’ve learned from their education with us.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about robust customer service and the debate between strong customer service as a positive and strong customer service as a pathway to becoming a degree mill?

BTT: With technology, everything is really changing; the paradigm is shifting. In order to be able to be successful — both for the student and for the institution — consideration of what customer service looks like for certain student populations is really an important part of what customers and students expect. If an institution doesn’t understand and cannot relate directly to the types of students they have, it will be very difficult for them to be able to succeed in an economy that will be driven more by the customer than by the government

This interview has been edited for length..

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Key Takeaways

  • Customer expectations are shifting and students now demand a greater level of service from their institutions.
  • Robust customer service at every piece of the pipeline goes a long way to support students’ success during their enrollment and after graduation.
  • Institutions that fear the introduction of customer service as a pathway to becoming a “degree mill” are often operating in a factory-style model that awards degrees to students who may not fully earn the credential.

Readers Comments

Vic Thomas 2014/05/23 at 10:17 am

I fail to understand the argument that focusing on customer service will somehow turn an institution into a “degree mill.” For me, good customer service is a given, as it helps current students progress and raises an institution’s profile among potential enrollees.

Jessica Prince 2014/05/23 at 1:47 pm

Interesting discussion of the “factory model” of postsecondary education. It’s true that if you trace the higher ed industry back to WWII, there was a strong shift to the four-year model quite unlike the Platonian model set out centuries ago. To me, a growing focus on customer service is an acknowledgement that higher ed is about cultivating strong students who can contribute to their communities and economies — the original purpose of higher ed.

Becky Takeda-Tinker 2014/05/30 at 11:12 am

In our current era of championing ‘individualism’ and ‘choice’, the provision of service that takes into account what people are really seeking, is just another factor in keeping up with change in order to ensure that we are effective in our job as educators. It is heartening to see from the posted responses that others understand that premise.

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