Published on 2013/10/16

Lifelong Customers: The Response to Student Consumerism

Lifelong Customers: The Response to Student Consumerism
There is no singular model for institutional operations to meet all of the changing student demands, but what is clear is that any new model must be student centered and built to respond to an institution’s unique student population

Institutions today must compete with one another for students, resources and prestige, and students know it. Institutions aim to develop, re-engineer, repurpose and restructure their academic and administrative processes in response to student consumerism.

Student consumerism has become common in educational systems. [1] Students are increasingly vocalizing their needs and demanding that institutions deliver on them. As customers of education service providers, students expect to be able to voice their opinions about the quality of service they’re receiving.

Robert Bellah provides an example of the student voice when, recently, a Stanford Graduate School of Business student told his instructor he “didn’t pay $40,000 to listen to this bullshit” and walked out of class. [2] The notion of student consumerism at an institution is therefore not far removed from reality, and the need to ensure students are satisfied with the educational service provided is essential.

Like patrons of a fine restaurant, student-consumers begin to evaluate their engagement with a continuing education provider from the moment they first step foot into the classroom or log in online.

Some might argue the student-consumer evaluation begins well before; at the point of inquiry, at the first engagement with marketing materials, literature and the website; and at the first interaction with recruitment staff. The impact of this first encounter reverberates throughout the student experience and ongoing interaction with the institution. [3]

To begin exploring a framework on how to address student-consumer expectations, it may be helpful to provide a framework for educational providers. Although there are several approaches available, Zeithaml, Parasuraman and Berry categorized student-consumer service expectations into five overall dimensions:

  1. Reliability: the ability to perform the promised service dependably and accurately;

  2. Tangibles: the appearance of physical facilities, equipment, personnel and communication materials;

  3. Responsiveness: the willingness to help customers and provide prompt service;

  4. Assurance: the knowledge and courtesy of employees and their ability to convey trust and confidence

  5. Empathy: the caring, individualized attention provided to the customer. [4]

How a college or university chooses to respond to these dimensions may indeed be the key to how well a student connects with an institution.

Just what is the “correct” model of service delivery for an educational institution?

Despite what has been written in support of various organizational models, this is an impossible question to answer in a vacuum. Local environments, student and operational needs, staff and student attitudes and market demand for particular services vary dramatically from one school to the next; departments, divisions, and organizational hierarchies differ from institution to institution, and there are no clear-cut prescriptions based on institutional type, regional considerations or other grouping mechanisms.

The literature on service delivery and models of organizational structure demonstrate that there are numerous options to consider in setting up service delivery at an institution. How institutions choose to couple, de-couple and re-couple the service delivery functions, particularly in the enrollment service areas of admissions, financial aid, the registrar, the bursar and other key operational units, is well documented and up to each educational institution to respond to.

There is no model emerging as the definitive example to meet the escalating demands needs of today’s student-customers. Instead, it has become clear that whatever model an institution adopts must be student-centered, based on a solid understanding of the college’s own student body, supported throughout the organization in terms of resources and commitment, inclusive of both managers and staff and flexible enough to adapt to the evolving needs of the institution and students themselves.

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References

[1] Irene C.L. Ng and Jeannie Forbes, “Education as Service: The Understanding of University Experience Through Service Logic,” Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, 19 (1), 2009, p. 38–64.

[2] Robert Bellah, “The Robert Bellah Reader” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006) p. 416

[3] Kamal Abouchedid and Ramzi Nasser, “Assuring Quality Service in Higher Education: Registration and Advising Attitudes in a Private University in Lebanon,” Quality Assurance in Education, 10(4), 2002, p. 198-206.

[4] Valarie Zeithaml, A. Parasuraman, and Leonard L. Berry, “Delivering Quality Service: Balancing Customer Perceptions and Expectations,” (New York: Free Press, 1990).

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Readers Comments

Eric Csergo 2013/10/16 at 11:03 am

“Despite what has been written in support of various organizational models, this is an impossible question to answer in a vacuum.”

I appreciate Abeyta’s frank response to a question about which service delivery model institutions should adopt. There’s a lot of nervous discussion in the higher education space about this very issue and I’m always wary of “experts” who promise “three steps to a better you.” To me, that simply encourages institutions to be lazy about their stakeholder engagement and consultation. Institutions should absolutely be ready and willing to work with their students to adapt their service model to locally-identified needs.

Josh Shapiro 2013/10/16 at 12:29 pm

Well reasoned and written article on a pressing problem for colleges and universities around the country. The major question as I see it is when does the institution know best and when should it listen to the voice of the student. This is obviously a delicate and at times extremely difficult balancing act, but Dr. Abeyta has given us a framework to at least begin conceptualizing how to respond.

Madison Riley 2013/10/17 at 9:12 am

Another solid piece by Abeyta examining the evolving service delivery model for institutions. I would just add that staff are an often overlooked, but valuable, resource for administration to tap into. They have an understanding of both student demands/needs and institutional capacity. This type of balance is needed for effective decision making.

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