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Commoditization Should Impact Transactional Higher Ed, not Academics

Commoditization Should Impact Transactional Higher Ed, not Academics
The commoditization of graduate education should not impact academic quality; through all of the innovation, the basic tenets of the transformative graduate experience remains paramount.
The commoditization of the graduate education marketplace has been evolving for decades and has reached a pivotal stage. Commoditization in the graduate education context refers to creating ease for students on the business end of the institution to allow them to focus on their studies. Commoditization should in no way impact a student’s academic experience, only his or her transactional experience with the institution. The core of quality education is the combination of talented, knowledgeable, motivated instructors and engaged students who are active in the learning process. This both did and did not occur before the push to scale delivery via Internet technology. In short, we need to study commoditization’s impact on learning and its impact on management.

Understanding Commoditization in the Graduate Education Context

Credentials are not products and students are not customers. Credentials certify that graduates have achieved a level of mastery of competencies. Students are learners engaging in a process to elevate their knowledge and abilities, and challenge their thought and decision-making processes through rigorous reading, writing and activities. They partake in this process by cultivating relationships with faculty mentors, other students and advisors in a community of learning.

This experience is becoming increasingly commoditized, in that programs are being replicated across the nation, delivery methods are more flexible and cost effective and schools are becoming more marketing savvy to distinguish their brands amidst the competition. I advocate for the glass-half-full perspective because, as educators, we’re looking with great scrutiny at the quality and impact of what we do. Not only because of the nudging from the accreditors, but because we’re increasingly eager to apply new knowledge we have gained about the science of learning and obtain evidence about the quality of our curricula and teaching practices.

By looking at the distinction between research and professional degrees, we note the difference between pushing the boundaries of knowledge for its own sake and the act of teaching and learning to develop a specific professional field.

Traditional research degrees focus on the mastery of an existing domain of learning whereas professional master’s degrees focus on the mastery of a professional practice. The changes in the external demands and employer needs, and the delivery of graduate degrees and certificates to address those needs, points to the synergy of industries and students’ need for specialized education and flexible modalities. This is a dynamic relationship.

As educators and curricula designers, we research and observe trends in the marketplace: employment trends, new industries or elements within industries that require specialized education. The commoditization of graduate education can serve to benefit large numbers of students and enhance industries, but institutions must be prepared to make structural and cultural modifications to do this well. Often these programs are designed and housed in continuing education units that can be modeled on for-profit schools. These structures allow for fast development and delivery, but we have much to do to assure quality, faculty support and to create a learning-centric culture.

Graduate Programs Promise Revenue but Have Unique Needs

Colleges and universities are developing professional graduate programs as new sources of revenue, but these enterprises require investment in unique infrastructures.

During this period of decline of state appropriations, colleges and universities have been investing more in physical plants and in managing their images, and are seeking new sources of revenue when those existing have reached maximum capacity. Schools are elevating admission criteria to become more competitive and aggressively recruiting out-of-state students at the undergraduate level to increase the proportion of students paying higher out-of-state rates. At the graduate level, schools are taking degrees online and developing new programs that respond to emerging needs in the marketplace, and easing the approval processes for certificates and ‘stackable’ credentials. More and more schools are marketing internationally — a rich frontier — and employing third parties to create pathways from other countries to their programs.

The growth of professional graduate programs has increased the need for flexibility in hiring faculty due to the specialized knowledge often needed. The resulting faculty profile is often a combination of career academics and professionals who are entering the field of teaching well into the middle or latter part of their professional careers. To grow programs appreciably, high numbers of full- and part-time faculty must be hired, requiring an investment and commitment to quality, and an appreciation for how these programs, faculty and students will impact the culture of the institution.

Here are a few other considerations for the changing demands of graduate education in the commoditized marketplace:

  • Professional faculty need an introduction to, and ongoing coaching on, student affairs issues, college and university governance, grading practices and pedagogical strategies, both face-to-face and online.

  • Large-scale programs often admit students with varying levels of preparation, writing ability and mastery of English. What outside-of-class support is provided to help these students succeed and to help the faculty develop sophisticated teaching techniques for these populations?

  • To retain professional faculty, a promotion scheme must be constructed that addresses their expertise and the expectations of the school. If research and publishing are not required, what are the criteria for longer-term contracts, raises and elevated titles?

  • What role should faculty play in recruiting students? Professional faculty can be very effective at recruiting events, and this can become a time-consuming part of the job. How are they compensated for this work?

  • Graduate programs that recruit international students must be prepared to address the interpersonal and intercultural dynamics of a diverse group. What expertise on campus can help prepare faculty and support students as they adapt to a new environment?


Students are not customers. While they deserve quality services in the transactional elements of attending college — admissions, advising, financial services and so on — the comparison of an academic credential to a product that’s sold to a market is misguided.

The educational process is one of transformation, disciplining the mind, practicing research, analysis and critical thought, and the impact that has on solving problems and innovating and creating in various industries: private, public, government, nonprofit. Regardless of how, and to how many, we provide an educational experience; it’s paramount to preserve the relationship and expectations between teacher and student. For students to have a transformative experience, they must engage with full attention, learn how to earn success and to accept failure, how to critique and be criticized, to learn to research and build a position rather than to spout opinions.

“The customer is always right” does not apply.

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