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Surviving in a Student Consumerist World

The EvoLLLution | Surviving in a Student Consumerist World
As online and remote learning gains in popularity (in part as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic), institutions need to remain competitive by viewing their students as consumers and the education they “sell” to students as a service.

The effect of COVID-19 on our lives has been significant in every way–how we shop, where we go (or don’t go), the masks we wear, the places we aren’t traveling to, our mental and physical health, homeschooling (the single hardest thing ever), and our amazing workers and teachers on the frontline who probably never get as much recognition as they deserve.

The impact has also been significant on higher education, particularly as traditional institutions had to move quickly to offer remote/virtual learning, and institutions that already an online footprint had to expand their offerings to accommodate students and minimize learning disruptions.  The changes have been swift, and the impact for some institutions has been fatal.  Differentiation is going to become even more important than it was before; there are simply going to be more choices for students, even with residential attendance still being an option. Competition for students is therefore going to be at an all-time high.

Before COVID-19 hit news cycles, I finished my dissertation in December 2019.  My topic was the study of perceptions of online adjunct faculty members regarding the concept of the student as a consumer (with increased buying power) and their perceptions of their customer service responsibility to those student consumers.  COVID-19 has made the findings of my study even more relevant and could currently serve schools moving online or reaffirm those that were already operating online.  Think about students considering a gap year, the complaints from some students about the online experience, the reluctance of some faculty members to embrace online learning, and the number of considerations colleges and universities must discuss this summer, fall, and beyond.

Students as customers

Students are consumers who make rational and active decisions when selecting a college or university that will deliver a service1. As educational access has expanded with the emergence and prevalence of online education, educators have become increasingly aware of the concept of educational consumerism. It posits that higher education is based on the demand for a service, and consumers (students) initiate a transaction to receive the service2. Put simply, student consumers pay tuition and receive their education in return. 3 Today’s students pursue education to “minimize uncertainty and maximize returns,” which is language not generally associated with education4. This shift in language surrounding education has evolved to be more consumer-centric, and universities, not without controversy, have begun to adjust to this reality of students as consumers5.

Considering students as consumers is concerning for universities because it forces them to view education as a product or service6. Today’s students can access information rapidly to compare universities’ qualities and reputations in all categories, which heightens students’ awareness of learning expectations and makes them feel more empowered in their decision-making7, 8. However, many universities have resisted change5, and opponents of the students-as-consumers model have protested that the values and language of the business world morally contradict the values and language of education9.

Among student consumers, the public and educational governing bodies, the concept of extracting the most value from every dollar spent on education has become a guiding principle in appraising the education sector’s core activities3. In the changing paradigm of student consumerism and institutional response, the student and faculty beliefs about the purposes, values and outcomes of education widely differ2. Although many regulatory agencies regard students as consumers, it is widely known that the way students are perceived is up for debate; many different stakeholders are attempting to define how students use their buying power in choosing their educational institution10.

Faculty perceptions of students as consumers may affect how universities deliver customer service to students11,12. Faculty members also may be uncomfortable with having a role in that customer service, given that their primary mandate is to educate6. If universities adopt a customer-oriented perspective as a differentiation strategy, that differentiation is highly dependent upon student satisfaction9. Researchers have indicated that a customer mindset has a direct association with customer satisfaction, and no relationship is more important in a university setting than the one between faculty members and students1, 12.

As students gain more purchasing power, the quality of service is expected to rise because students will choose a university based on fulfilled demands6. If faculty members’ interactions with students affect their experiences, it is then plausible to suggest that faculty members have a direct influence on the perception of customer service, an influence that is likely to either increase or decrease student retention13. Today’s online adjunct faculty members have had to adjust to a more entitled student with increased buying power.

Method and Results

In a qualitative case study design, the sample consisted of 17 online adjunct faculty members who responded to an anonymous online survey and six online adjunct faculty members who answered questions in a semi-structured interview format. Results of the data analysis revealed five dominant themes regarding online adjunct faculty’s perceptions of their customer service responsibilities and the student consumer:

(a) Higher education is becoming increasingly competitive due to the availability of online degrees;

(b) Students are changing; they think and act differently;

(c) Online adjunct faculty members vary in their willingness to consider students as consumers; however, they also demonstrate an acute understanding of return on investment;

(d) Human decency is a way to rationalize customer service but not to the point of being responsible for student retention;

(b) Faculty members perceive that students expect instant and active communication from them.

Though online adjunct faculty members consider themselves educational facilitators, many of their responsibilities are grounded in customer service as they become more responsible for satisfying the student consumer who has become more financially aware. If universities experience increased attrition, it is then plausible to suggest that their faculty members can positively or negatively affect institutional operations2. Faculty members can view students either as consumers who must be serviced or as students who have a sense of entitlement5, 12. Students may then view positive educational outcomes as a return on investment rather than a consequence of performance14. From the perspective of online faculty members, the student consumerist mentality undermines students’ awareness of the efforts that they must invest to obtain academic success.

Struggle for survival

Let’s revisit the idea of choice and competition. Post COVID-19, the number of choices for students will be even greater than it was before. It’s true that we are all in this together, but at what point will the struggle for survival force institutions to compete beyond their level of comfort?  That day is coming soon.

Differentiation becomes a key component in the marketing, recruitment and retention of students. Institutions aren’t just going to be competing with each other, they are going to be competing with a virus, distance, gap year considerations, alternative learning models, fear, anxiety and uncertainty. More than any other, the relationship between the faculty member and student will enhance or disintegrate the student’s perception of their institution. Even if, and that is an uncertain if, institutions return to in-classroom courses in the fall, they will maintain some components of online learning within their teaching methodologies. Are faculty prepared to balance online and on-the-ground facilitation? As an industry, we have just pivoted to online learning to a certain degree by choice or force – does your institution have the systems in place–particularly around student services and faculty training–to steward today’s online student consumer that has just seen their value and buying power increase exponentially?



  1. Hall, W. A. (2013),
  2. Gates, T. G., Heffernan, K., & Sudore, R. (2015),
  3. Tomlinson, M. (2017),
  4. Heckman, S., & Montalto, C. P. (2018).
  5. Sutin, S. E. (2018).
  6. Bunce, L., Baird, A., & Jones, S. E. (2017).
  7. Ortagus, J. (2017).
  8. Robinson, L. (2017).
  9. Rutter, R., Roper, S., & Lettice, F. (2016).
  10. Tight, M. (2013).
  11. Bailie, J. (2015). doi:
  12. Guilbault, M. (2018).
  13. Guilbault, M. (2016).
  14. Marshall, J. E., Fayambo, G., & Marshall, R. (2015).

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