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Serving Learners Over A Lifetime

Adopting a mindset of seeing students as customers is the best way for institutions to adapt outdated processes and begin serving the modern lifelong learner. 

Higher education has changed and it won’t be returning to its old ways. Instead of looking back, institutions need to look ahead and focus on the potential the future holds. In this consumer era of higher education, the traditional ways of engaging and retaining students won’t work. In this interview, John Porter discusses why we need to think of students as customers, how to adapt to a lifelong learning model, and the role Continuing Education divisions play in shaping this new vision. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo) Why is it important for modern colleges and universities to think about students as customers? 

John Porter (JP): Universities get stuck in the mindset that they are an institution with rote processes, to which students just show up and life continues. Generation Z (and I assume generations to come) are very savvy and tech-oriented. They are informed individuals with different needs, wants and expectations. 

Universities are in the business of education. We have revenue, expenses and hopefully profit. Given students pay money to the university, we can assume they are customers, so it is our responsibility to know what they are looking for, meet their expectations and delight them (in the business world: seek high customer satisfaction)!

Evo: How can higher education institutions adapt to serve learners for a lifetime—rather than restricting their learner relationships to single programs?

JP: The university mindset needs adjusting. The reason we have episodic students is because we, as institutions, condition them. We should be conditioning for life-long learning education never stops—by keeping traditional degrees while offering programming to drive skills throughout a person’s life,  specifically filling the gaps that can influence their marketability and providing organizations with the right help immediately. I also believe that learners are looking for four components in education: value, relevance, flexibility, affordability. If institutions can accommodate these four components, then they stand a better chance of recruiting future learners and keep them for a lifetime.

Evo: What are some of the cultural and infrastructural hurdles that stand in the way of a postsecondary institution executing on a lifelong learning model?

JP: As mentioned, it’s about changing the student/consumer mindset and the conditioning around it. The mantra has been that universities provide a degree, and once a student has obtained it, they no longer need higher ed. To change this mindset, universities need to show value outside the four-year degree. There need to be solid examples of industry skills gaps being filled and in turn helping the learner succeed. Lifelong learning can be about education for education’s sake. I sought my MBA for personal reasons, not to satisfy any company requirement. I knew the MBA would strengthen my business acumen and give me a broader perspective on business and surrounding activities, like valuations, P&L analysis, business trends, etc.

Evo: What role can Continuing, professional and online education divisions play to pivot to higher education toward this new vision?

JP: Value, relevance, flexibility and cost are top of mind for learners. We live in an on-demand world and generation Z students are used to organizations anticipating their needs and delivering what they need when and how they need it. Education should be no different. We have to shape our thinking around the learner and their needs. Microcredentials fit the need for all four components discussed. Microcredentials represent a hit-and-run mentality—meaning a quick barrage of education to get a learner skilled and ready for the workforce appears to meet the need of a large sub-set of generation Z.

Evo: How can senior institutional leaders empower their CE leaders to play a bigger role in supporting institutional strategic initiatives? 

JP: As we did at Lindenwood University, design thinking played a big role identifying our six strategic initiatives that lay the ground-work of our five-year strategic plan. We empowered our strategic leadership team to think in terms of transformation—meaning dream big. Through four design thinking workshops, we developed 245 transformational ideas and honed them down to our final six using an external validation process. I’ve told my team that on one hand I care about what other institutions are doing in terms of best practices, but on the other hand, I don’t want to be like other institutions. So we utilize the dual operating system developed by Dr. J.P. Kotter where everything at Lindenwood either falls on the operational side — which is about improving the operation — or on the innovation side — which is about transforming the operation. I’m not saying we have perfected this, but we believe this approach will propel us toward our achieving our vision to become the next great learner-centric university.


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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