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Differentiating “Customer Service” and “Degree Mill” in Higher Education

Differentiating “Customer Service” and “Degree Mill” in Higher Education
“Customer” does not have to be a dirty word in higher education circles; students are spending a lot of money on their education and institutions need to be capable of communicating with their prospective learners.
Proponents from both sides of the philosophical “student” vs. “customer” debate can hopefully agree on one thing; paying for college is a significant investment.

It’s no coincidence that the national discussion on the value of pursuing a degree comes at a time when the country has emerged from a recession based largely upon the crash of the housing market. Back in the golden days, home equity loans and savings from mortgage refinancing were commonly used to pay for college. But when the recession hit, these options disappeared almost overnight as property values plummeted. Even as the housing industry rebounds, these financing options are still out of reach for many Americans struggling to regain the pre-recession value of their property. Lack of financing options, rising rates of student loan defaults, and no guarantee of jobs waiting for successful graduates—it’s no wonder the return on investment (ROI) of a college education is under scrutiny.

Many top-tier private and large public universities have traditionally had the luxury of turning away students, but now that trend is starting to change. Recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicates that only 65.9 percent of students who graduated from high school in spring 2013 enrolled in college in the fall. This statistic is a reminder that not every 17-18 year old high school graduate takes the summer off and immediately heads to college.[1] The report goes on to add that many potential college students are deferring or forgoing college altogether in order to enter the workforce, in spite of evidence that the average college graduate earns over $800,000 more than the average high school graduate by retirement age.[2]

The sea change we face in higher education is the need to shift our perspective on students; learning to think of them as customers who need proof that college is worth their investment.

Critics understandably express concern that treating students as customers could potentially dilute the quality of education by focusing on the money and simply rubber-stamping diplomas to earn a quick dollar. Unfortunately, there are bad actors in our industry reinforcing this negative stereotype. But “customer” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Our industry has an opportunity to demonstrate ethical standards by acknowledging and supporting the prospective student decision process. The impact is twofold—effective time spent communicating with prospective students who become matriculating students, and truthful conversations that may reveal a mismatch before it’s too late. Sometimes this means you may lose a potential student whose needs can’t be met at your school. However, taking steps upfront to ensure the best match can result in better yield and retention. Skipping this dialogue might get you the quick sale but result in stop-outs or student dissatisfaction impacting the reputation of your institution.

Many colleges struggle with the notion of stealth applicants—mysterious prospective students who seemingly appear out of thin air and apply. The reality is that these stealth applicants aren’t making a snap decision. Rather, they have been quietly doing their research on the schools that best meet their needs, such as schedule flexibility, affordability, programs that support their passions and goals. By the time they apply, months or even years may have elapsed. So why take the silent route? My theory is that students don’t want to be “sold”. No high-pressure sales pitch, no Apply Now or Register Today pleas. When making a significant choice that will impact the rest of their lives, students are more likely to choose a school that helps them along the way as they make their decision.

Stealth applicants might not lurk in the shadows if we give them a reason to come out into the light and introduce themselves to us. So where do we begin? Let’s use email as an example and think about what you might experience as a prospective student:

1. Ditch the “everything but the kitchen sink approach”

Imagine contacting a school at the beginning of your search. In return, you receive an email with a laundry list of links and Apply Now buttons and you never hear from the school again. Communication should be a dialogue. There’s no need to include everything in one message and expect the prospective student to immediately apply. It’s like stepping onto a car dealership parking lot for the first time and having a salesman immediately hand you the purchase paperwork.

2. Know your student

Address your messaging to the individual, be sure your message is relevant to their expressed interest area and answers any questions they asked. Did the student inquire about a nursing program and your response tells them about all the programs your department offers? Did the student already apply and you’re still sending them messages encouraging them to apply?

3. Prove your worth

An education investment decision can take months or even years. One message isn’t enough. Consider creating a series of communications that build the case for why your institution or program is the right choice. Address common questions such as, how do I pay for college? Are your graduates successful? What type of job can I get with this degree? Can classes fit in with my busy schedule? Will I fit in with my classmates?


As competition for higher education increases, we can set ourselves apart by acknowledging the significant investment of time, money, and emotion a student makes when selecting a college or university. To avoid the degree mill trap, be prepared to lose prospective students along the way. Treating interactions as a dialogue and creating a culture that respects and supports the student decision process is where our industry can truly serve our customers.

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[1] Bureau of Labor Statustics, “College Enrollment and Work Activity of 2013 High School Graduates,” April 22, 2014. Accessed at

[2] Mary C. Daly and Leila Bengali, “Is It Still Worth Going to College?” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, May 5, 2014. Accessed at