Published on 2014/09/16
Students Are Customers Whether We Admit It or Not (Part 1)
Though the concept is debated, the fact of the matter is that students are customers in today’s higher education environment.
As with any topic that involves dichotomous views in an environment of change, the discussion of whether or not higher education institutions should treat students as customers engenders controversy and strong opinions on either side of the issue. Both sides have valid points that are rooted in theory and research.

It’s in such circumstances that one of my favorite quotes comes to mind — Yogi Berra stated, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

When it comes to whether we believe students should be treated as customers, our beliefs on that matter are largely irrelevant because, in practice, the students are already customers — and they behave accordingly. There are five main factors combining to solidify this paradigm:

  1. Access, Privilege and Socioeconomic Mobility
  2. Choice
  3. Payment
  4. Dependency
  5. Student/Institution Relationship

Our institutional and individual responses to these factors influence students’ decisions about whether to remain our customers.

1. Access, Privilege and Socioeconomic Mobility

From the founding of our nation until the Progressive Era, access to higher education was almost wholly determined by social class, race and gender. Since then, the patterns of class, race and gender privilege on educational access and success still impact students in both K-12 and higher. However, the advent of universal public education for the K-12 group, the community college paradigm and inclusivity and cultural competency in university settings have together dramatically increased access to higher education that was once reserved for the most privileged in society.

Just as globalism, consumerism and social mobility have allowed consumers in the lower and middle socioeconomic classes to acquire and enjoy products and services once reserved for the wealthy and elite, increasing numbers of students from all classes and backgrounds now have access to higher education, and they increasingly get to choose whether or not they want to participate.

2. Choice

Students are customers as defined by their choice. Unlike the compulsory attendance basis of the K-12 system, the very existence of higher education is predicated on students’ choice to enroll, pay and attend. For those potential students that actually choose to go to college, the choices are just as diverse as choices for toothpaste in a supermarket. When I go to the supermarket — which is in itself a choice as to which one I visit — I am almost overwhelmed by the brands, features and variations in the toothpaste options. Aside from the 10 or more brands from which I can choose, I can buy toothpaste with baking soda for freshness, peroxide for whitening, fluoride for strong teeth, mouthwash-infused for germ control, tartar control, gingivitis control … the choices go on and on.

Higher education options are equally diverse. Students can choose a community college, a local or regional public university, a private university, a for-profit technical school, an online public university, an online private university, a Massive Open Online Course or any other provider. Students can also choose a technical degree, a two-year degree, a four-year degree, a certificate, a competency-based credential, a major course of study and the professors/instructors from whom they want to learn. Then if they’re dissatisfied, they can change majors, leave for another college or exit higher education altogether.

The point is that the combinations of choices alone demonstrate that students are customers, because customers choose what they want to buy, for how much (within their fiscal limitations) and when and whether or not they want to buy something at all.

This is the first of a three-part series by Roark outlining the factors that contribute to postsecondary students’ new role as a customer. In the second part, he outlines the final three factors.


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Readers Comments

Alison King 2014/09/16 at 2:52 pm

I want to comment on the first point. It’s true that students today have greater access to higher ed as a result of greater socioeconomic mobility. However, there continue to be barriers to entry for some of the institutions we might consider “top tier” in the country, e.g. Harvard, Yale, etc. Accessibility (or inaccessibility, in most cases) to this set of institutions is intrinsically tied to socioeconomic factors. This is important to remember as we move ahead in thinking of students as consumers; yes, they may be, but of what ‘goods’?

Gabe Haque 2014/09/17 at 9:49 am

Good series by Roark outlining the key ways in which students must now be seen as customers in higher education. This is an important perspective to adopt, as institutions will soon have to (if they aren’t already) adapt their processes and programming to respond to the emerging consumer mentality. It’s interesting to read Roark’s description of the factors that led us to where we are. I hope the second piece will address what higher ed institutions can do with this new-found insight into student behaviors.

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