Published on 2017/01/31

The Experience Crisis in Higher Ed: Student Consumers and the Diploma Mill

The EvoLLLution | The Experience Crisis in Higher Ed: Student Consumers and the Diploma Mill
Today’s students are focused on value and institutions that are able to respond to that need while still delivering the experience learners expect will be successful in the long run.

This is the second installment in a three-part series by David Thomas discussing the potential for understanding the realities of today’s higher education industry by viewing it through the Experience Economy lens. In the first installment, Thomas defined the concept and connected it to the postsecondary industry. In this second installment, he draws the comparison out further.

While it’s not popular to think of students as consumers, the trouble seems to lie in the reciprocal connotation that education is a product. If students are consumers shopping for a good deal, then universities and colleges look like product factories competing in the market by offering the best product at the lowest price. And something about that just doesn’t sit right.

But what if we lens this problem through Gilmore and Pine’s Experience Economy? What if students are, in fact, consumers in every sense of the word, but what they are looking for is neither products nor services exactly, but rather an experience? This help us reframe some of the problems facing higher education. If higher education is about the experience, then we escape the trap of education as a commodity, a product or service competing mostly on price and feature differentiation. If thinking about students as consumers is uncomfortable, at least thinking about education as a meaningful experience sounds right.

We can clearly see the experience dynamic at play in the nature and notion of the diploma.

As tuition, has gone up and public support evaporated, we’ve seen the public good of a college education transform into a private good. Predictably, our students have become more focused on the cost/value argument and many have reduced the complex equation of learning down to a simple formula:

Total cost of the degree ÷ Earning potential post-graduation = Diploma value

For some students, this equation solves practically: The less I spend on my diploma, the better. This diploma-chase has led to all manner of visible harms including academic dishonesty, lowering of academic standards and a shying away from degrees that don’t have immediate career benefit.

In terms of the experience economy this is a problem of the diploma as product. If students feel like they are paying for a diploma, it’s perfectly rational to minimize the investment of time and money required to earn the degree and get the piece of paper.

On the other hand, if the diploma is a marker of the experience, then minimizing time or money in the pursuit makes little, or no sense. The value is in the experience, and people will pay for experience.

Visitors to a theme park like Disneyland or a tent-pole sports event like the Super Bowl most likely will return home with mementos and souvenirs of their one-of-a-kind experience. Whether it’s a set of mouse ears or a limited-edition ball cap bought at the event, the value in the thing doesn’t come from its materiality; it comes from what it represents. You could mail order your own Disney gear or pick up authentic Super Bowl merchandise at the local sports store. But that’s not the point. Spending thousands of dollars to enjoy time with Mickey or attending a big game with your favorite team is not about getting it over with and hitting the souvenir stand. When an experience is of high value, the ears, the hat or the diploma turn into mere tokens that mark something amazing that happened in your life.

I’m sure some will rankle at the notion of comparing a university degree to a visit to a theme park. Higher education is not in the entertainment business, to be sure.  But the comparison is not about the content, the product or even the service. The comparison helps show what’s different when you value the experience first. And that’s a lesson that higher education used to know and sometimes seems to have forgotten.

In fact, the experience economy reaches far and wide. Apple has transformed personal computing through a focus on the consumer experience, and Tesla is reinventing what it means to be a car owner in the same way the NFL has defined what it means to be a fan or Disney has defined family fantasy. People crave experience so products and their related services have become a means to an end.

In the third and final installment of this series, Thomas will share his thoughts on what it will take for an institution to succeed in the Experience Economy.

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