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Mission Driven or Customer Driven? The Plight of Modern Higher Education Institutions

Mission Driven or Customer Driven? The Plight of Modern Higher Education Institutions
Curran explores whether the customer service model is compatible with an institution’s education mission.
The concept of higher education institutions becoming business enterprises is not new. This idea has prevailed for years at for-profit institutions with mixed results. There are those who argue — correctly — that without the existence of capitalism, or some form of business model, higher education institutions as they stand today would not be possible; the downside of these business practices is that they have the potential to turn legitimate higher education institutions into degree mills — and change education itself into a commodity.

There are three distinct issues with a customer service approach to higher education. First, it reduces faculty to mere workers who have few opportunities to contribute to the institution.[1] It hurts the role of administration; instead of being able to encourage new and exciting technologies in both online and traditional classrooms, deans and other administrative faculty have to focus on revenue generation in the form of student retention and recruitment.[2] More importantly, it hurts the student. Instead of the emphasis on knowledge, as was traditionally the emphasis in higher education, the student’s primary function becomes the acquisition of skills that will be marketable.[3]

It is well documented that faculty at many institutions, especially those that teach at for-profits, have limited engagement with their students. Concerns regarding the lack of academic standards at many institutions have been reported as far back as the 1990s. One major issue institutions with a customer service mission have is that education itself becomes a project to be sold. Previous generations viewed educational institutions as a force for good and a benefit to the community. Now, they are viewed as a pathway for students to become more marketable to prospective employers. Traditionally, faculty have worked as a team to educate generations of students. The customer service mission means limited engagement faculty have with their students. This is eerily similar to the front counter of a fast-food restaurant. Students become customers, enrolling in courses that are accelerated or online, leaving faculty with precious little time to engage and inspire them.

Federal funding for higher education has been falling for decades. To make up for this, college boards and administrators have put pressure on enrollment staff to allow students who may not even be ready for college to begin classes. Many of these students apply for financial aid; while the college receives their money, the student may be struggling, or graduate with bare-minimum qualifications. Media stories indicate this has been a primary problem at many for-profit institutions in recent years. These institutions prey on individuals who desire a good education by promising them a bright future — and then saddling them with enormous amounts of debt and no real way to obtain meaningful employment that enables them to pay back those loans. While this is extremely common at for-profit institutions, if non-profits begin employing these tactics, there will be no visible difference between the two.

Ultimately, it is the students who suffer from the customer service model of education. Students desire to gain knowledge and skills for careers, but the ultimate goal of higher education should be to produce a well-rounded citizenry.

An institution that views its student populace as customers to increase revenue is likely to view its faculty in the same manner. Institutions are looking to meet the demands of their students in the most efficient, and cheapest, manner possible. As such, programs are considered successful only when they increase revenue production or assist in fundraising efforts, often without considering the views of the students involved in the program.

As higher education institutions deal with increased competition from online colleges and universities across the nation, as well as decreasing funds from the federal government, the natural course of action is to turn to the business-model approach. Unfortunately, although this model undermines traditional education and erodes the very values these institutions have put in place, they are not going to disappear — and are likely to expand in the 21st century.

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[1] Elena-Pérez, S. (2011). Ready for the future? Universities’ capabilities to strategically manage their intellectual capital. Foresight : The Journal Of Futures Studies, Strategic Thinking And Policy, 13(2).

[2] Natale, S., & Doran, C. (2012). Marketization of Education: An Ethical Dilemma. Journal of Business Ethics, 105(2), 187-196. doi: 10.1007/s10551-011-0958-y

[3] Piña, A. A. (2010). Online diploma mills: implications for legitimate distance education (Vol. 31, no. 1 (May 2010), p. 121-126): Open & Distance Learning Association of Australia.

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