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A Customer Service Approach and a Quality Learning Experience Are Not Mutually Exclusive

The EvoLLLution | A Customer Service Approach and a Quality Learning Experience Are Not Mutually Exclusive
Offering a supportive and service-oriented environment tailored to respond to the needs to students can have significant impacts on retention and student outcomes.

Two things being mutually exclusive means they are not able to be true at the same time—they cannot coexist in the same environment.

Some have suggested treating a student as a customer commoditizes the learner and has no place in higher education—implying that a customer service philosophy and a quality higher education experience are mutually exclusive. Such implications harken back to the lore promoting the image of the Ivory Tower, when institutions were citadels of bureaucracy and some faculty would quip how universities would be a great place to work if it weren’t for their students. Surely higher education in the 21st century has deconstructed the Ivory Tower and realized the benefits of focusing on, yes, their clientele—indeed, their purpose for existence: the student-customer.

The most obvious services that benefit from a student-customer philosophy in higher education is the support infrastructure constructed around their learning experiences. Registration, housing, counseling, recreation and dining are typical campus units that do well treating students as consumers of goods and services. It is easy to identify exorbitant expenditures by universities with huge student recreation facilities or mall-like food courts in student centers, but the value of some of these services can be more than just glitz and glamour recruiting. In 2009, when the Great Recession was wreaking havoc on institutional budgets and leaders were questioning the value of student services, authors at the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute were finding student service expenditures did have a positive influence on graduation and student persistence rates.

This is not to say that more climbing walls, wave pools, or concierge services are the simple answers to improving higher education. Instead, it suggests that a good customer service model outside the classroom can have an impact on what goes on inside the classroom. Some would argue these are distractions to learning, while others argue that these services are responding to the evolving consumer demand of a new generation of learners. Consumers in the marketplace change behavior, so students do too.

There is no question that what goes on in the classroom is more important to a student’s academic success than what happens in the lazy river outside their university residence hall. So can a student customer philosophy have a positive influence inside the classroom? It already has to some extent.

Recent innovations in higher education are the results of institutions responding to consumer demand, technology trends and focusing on the adage of “putting students first.” Once the hallmark of for-profit institutions, now public institutions are being more responsive to students as their customers.

Here are just a few examples of how a student customer service philosophy is driving changes in teaching and learning:

1. Course Delivery

Think learning management systems, online courses, flexible terms, blended formats, massive open online courses, video conferencing, and competency-based teaching and learning models.

2. Open Education Resources

The rising cost of tuition coupled with the increasing cost of textbooks has institutions launching open education resource (OER) initiatives lowering students’ financial burden while individualizing course content for faculty.

3. Learner Analytics

Amazon and Netflix are not the only competitors racing to collect and predict consumer behavior from massive amounts of data. Higher education administrators, faculty and staff who are being challenged to quantify student success in the classroom, are turning to data for metrics and solutions. For example, the data are driving curricular changes in areas like remedial education and personalized academic programming.

4. Access

Just like the printing press made books more accessible or Henry Ford used innovative production to bring more cars to consumers, teaching and learning technologies, flexible programming, adaptive technologies, and micro and stackable credentials are bringing education to more people, including first-generation, non-traditional, and underrepresented populations.


Institutions are developing integrated planning and advising systems that are more responsive to student needs and provide real-time information contributing to achievement of a degree or other credential within a more inclusive learning environment.

A student customer service approach is not mutually exclusive with a quality learning experience in higher education. Effective customer service involves listening to your clientele, anticipating their needs, responding to their evolving environment, and providing an experience emphasizing quality and achievement.

Are these not the same goals that are driving positive changes in higher education?

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