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Establish Engaging Experience by Seeing Students as Customers

To avoid being overtaken by industry, as it enters the education market, higher education needs to learn to serve students as customers by offering them an experience that fits their specific needs that evolves with them.

With increasing competition, higher education needs to shift its thinking when it comes to the experiences it’s delivering and how it views their students. With a consumer mindset, higher ed leaders can better understand what the modern learner is looking for and how to meet their needs. In this interview, Ed Abeyta discusses the importance of seeing students as customers, how institutions can stand out in the market and ways to deliver a highly engaging learner experience.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher ed leaders to think about students as customers when considering aspects of the student experience?

Edward Abeyta (EA): The data and messages from industry are clear: There’s more competition in Continuing Education and alternatives. If you’re going to have Workforce Development programming, something has to separate you from the competition. One area is service and customer service—that’s the differentiator. It’s all about the experience now. Tech companies like Google have been signaling for years that if higher ed wasn’t going to do it, then they would. Now we’re here. The competition isn’t just about institutions but industry moving into our markets and moving forward without us. That’s why things are rapidly changing in customer service.

Evo: How have student expectations changed when it comes to service and support?

EA: Things have changed immensely over the last 50 years. Here’s the challenge: You can talk about the student experience in terms of amenities, the vibe and social networks, but since the cost of higher ed has increased so much, people are thinking of another route because they don’t want to be in debt. They would sacrifice some of those amenities and social networks to get some of the commoditized areas of education out of the way. They can do this through community college, but at the end of the day, it’s not the institution driving it—students are. Our traditional models have forced our institutions to start thinking differently because customers demand it.

Evo: What does it take for an institution to determine what’s differentiating? 

EA: Every campus has something unique that makes it a viable product. There are a lot of options out there, so how do you differentiate? At the end of the day, it depends on the institution’s president and system and their objectives. At the University of California, each campus is a land-grant institution. Our job is to connect to the community and enhance it. So, a differentiation is: Are the graduates we’re producing contributing to society?

We’re entering new demographics in America. Jobs are rapidly changing—jobs that people of diverse cultures and nationalities do. When you start thinking about rapid changes and what we contribute, it’s not just about offering a four-year degree. It’s about how we connect with students before they get to an institution? That’s lifelong learning.

The talent pipeline starts in early childhood—that’s malleable learning. There are so many components to the various learning stages. When we talk about differentiating it’s not about a one-and-done experience. It’s creating an affinity to the institution as their partner for life.

Evo: What are the obstacles that come with building a robust lifelong learning experiences with high-quality interactions and engagements?

EA: It’s not their fault, but faculty have a different mindset based on their own experiences with more traditional processes. In many cases, they believe higher learning is a cathedral, and they want to protect that. There are ways to maintain faculty integrity and quality, but you can layer on things that complement that experience through services, support and engagement.

It’s really about progressing and adapting—as we learned from the pandemic. We had to covet a structure we were comfortable with. As an institution, we can’t do away with the integrity of our academic systems, but we can adjust to the population we serve. We must reexamine our practices because we’re either adapting or dying.

Evo: What role can CE play in helping deliver highly engaging experiences that set the expectation for a highly engaging college experience?

EA: Education is one of the biggest investment parents or students will make, alongside something like a house. We’ve noticed that our students face a tedious, challenging process when applying. So, my suggestion is that they shouldn’t be left alone to do this. 

Institutions can start developing a talent pipeline connected to school districts and educators that allows people to take a couple of courses. We can use lifelong learning as extensions. Students would have a better idea of their investment before they go into the college. They can get in and out. It’s a more holistic approach and will require us to reexamine our approach. It’s not just about enrolling students to get bums in the seats. It’s about building relationships that can foster an affinity that benefits the institution and enhances our greater community.

Evo: What are some interesting things you’ve seen a university do to build engaging experiences for learners that keeps them coming back?

EA: In some cases, this notion of transactional vs. transformational—graduate institutions whose missions teams take to schools and present are transactional. Then there are some four-day experiences moving the needle toward transformational because if students experience something, they connect more to it.  

Right now, I’m learning about institutions looking to connect with parents through a concept called parent university. The notion is to offer classes through Continuing Ed that help prepare parents to support their child through college and into the workforce. That’s transformational because it brings the whole family in. They’re engaged and everyone evolves together.

Then there’s the idea that students don’t need to wait to start Continuing Education. They can finish a certificate before they even graduate or go to college. It’s instilling the seed of getting out of the K-12 school system and connecting to a university. Dual enrollment exists, but they’re mainly academics. How about looking at the skills and knowledge we teach adults? These transformational elements can foster a greater impact and connection to the university for both parents and communities. 

Evo: Why is this kind of customer experience worth investing in?

EA: Education is a human right, and the investment in connecting with individuals and the community creates the basis for a healthy workforce. It lifts up jobs and creates a greater understanding of each other. This investment can help bridge the divide in our country. We need the ability to attack ideas and not each other. We’re at a moment when investment can be a catalyst for positive change in communities and industries.

About ten years ago, we said that if we didn’t do it, industry would. We thought we were doing a great job, but after speaking to industry, some thought we weren’t doing so great. Industry leaders said they were going to have to fix what we didn’t in terms of the skilled worker. So, we have a lot of work to do. Knowledge on demand is powerful. If we’re not planning for the future in customer service—which is a differentiator—then guess what? You may be overcome by the wave ahead of you. You need to respond, not react.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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