The Changing Role of Students in the Customer-Oriented Higher Education MarketplaceEdward Abeyta | Assistant Dean for Community Engagement, UC San Diego
The impact of the economic downturn in America over the past decade produced several lessons for the continuing education industry to note. One learning outcome is the reality of students being the driving force in demanding changes in how their education needs are served. The transformation of the student into a customer stresses the importance of treating students as such in order to succeed in the competitive higher education marketplace.
Postsecondary institutions have recognized the value of adopting various best practices in private industry for years.The concern by many leaders in education in adopting a for-profit mindset is the potential impact on an institution’s ability to keep the integrity and historic prestige of a college education intact and to remain true to its own mission. Critics of the comparison to business say colleges and universities will be inclined to succumb to the lure of the marketplace, where there is little or no distinction.
In order to avoid these traps, postsecondary institutions have had to see themselves from a new perspective. Strategic planning, discussions about academic vision and clarification of institutional missions have led colleges and universities to look at themselves from the inside out and to chart unique, institution-specific plans for attaining goals and objectives. 
While traditional postsecondary institutions continue to address the shift to treating students as consumers, for-profit institutions have grown dramatically over the last decade to meet student-customer demand for customized programming offerings, flexible schedules and personalized service. Online open courseware, free online instruction, such as that offered by Khan’s Academy, have also ushered in a customized learning option for students who desire on-demand courses.
With technological tools readily available today, colleges and universities are faced with the challenge of looking closely at their infrastructure in order to find ways to maximize student satisfaction and concurrently reduce operational expenditures. Student-customers are ready and willing to take advantage of self-service and technology-driven enrollment service options — such as online registration and bill payment — in exchange for the opportunity to develop personalized relationships with cross-functional, cross-trained enrollment services counseling staff on an as-needed, personally tailored basis. This enables institutions to improve cost effectiveness and student satisfaction simultaneously.
There is a major paradigm shift underway in higher education prompting these strategic self-examinations at colleges and universities. Triggered in part by changes in the labor market that have increased the demand for college-educated workers, and coupled with the greater potential for lifetime earnings and success that a college education virtually guarantees, many prospective students may conclude that attending college is not simply a luxury, but a necessity.
Concurrently, tuition and cost of education increases have continued to outpace the cost of living increases for most Americans. At the same time, the federal and state needs-based grant systems and governmental subsidies to higher education institutions have failed to keep pace. Decreasing government support, increasing costs associated with providing and earning an advanced education and a substantial increase in the number of students in pursuit of higher education have resulted in the financial burden being placed squarely onto the shoulders of the students and their families, and have contributed to the development o f a consumer-oriented mindset among prospective college students and their families. 
Consequently, students not only consider themselves as active learners and participants in the attainment of their education, but also as customers of the educational goods colleges and universities deliver and evaluators of the services colleges and universities offer.
In viewing themselves as both student and customer, students are much more sensitive to the wide array of choices available in the educational arena and more likely to compare and contrast not only academic program offerings, but also the services a given institution provides throughout the educational experience. They have come to expect, and demand, the same high standards of service they have grown accustomed to in other organizations in society, making administrative service delivery an integral part of a college or university’s ability to compete in the higher educational market.
With the costs of providing education to college students increasing, escalating competition in the higher education marketplace, reduced federal and state subsidies to colleges and universities and increasing demands for high-quality service delivery in a student customer-oriented environment, it is becoming more and more important for colleges and universities to contain their costs as they concurrently attempt to stand out as student-customer focused. This approach is critical in order for postsecondary institutions to succeed in the competitive higher education marketplace.
– – – –
 George Keller. Academic Strategy: The Management Revolution in American Higher Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1983.
 Peter Eckel, Barbara Hill, Madeleine Green and Bill Mallon. On Change: Reports from the Road: Insights on Institutional Change (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 1999).
 Martha Beede, and Darlene Burnett (Eds.). Planning for Student Services: Best Practices for the 21st Century (Ann Arbor: Society for College and University Planning, 1999).
 Robert Zemsky, Susan Shaman, and Daniel Shapiro. Higher Education as Competitive Enterprise: When Markets Matter (Vol. 29) (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).
Author Perspective: Administrator