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Navigating the Transition to ‘Learner as Customer’

Navigating the Transition to ‘Learner as Customer’
As students begin acting more and more like customers, it’s critical for higher education institutions to begin adapting to meet their demands.
If you’ve worked in marketing higher education for a while, you’re sure to remember the good old days: when students chose a school because they were familiar with a local institution, or because they could easily drive to campus. Maybe their neighbor was a faculty member at the local college. If they did decide to attend a school that was farther away, it might have been their dad’s alma mater.

Not anymore.

With the explosion of online and distance learning, hybrids, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and so on, opportunities for students have increased exponentially over the past decade.

Because they have more choices than ever, learners have become very savvy shoppers. They are not simply students anymore. They are customers.

Of course, the notion that students are customers has long been taboo in the world of higher education, but it’s today’s reality. The institutions that grasp the concept of great customer service are going to come out ahead in the game. In order to provide great customer service, we need to know what our savvy shoppers are looking for, and how we can best serve their needs and wants without compromising the quality of their educational experience.

1. Dispelling the notion that we are ‘selling’ degrees

Starting the ‘customer’ conversation within your institution is sure to bring some heated discussion. You’ll hear impassioned pleas like, “We offer an educational experience” and “We do not sell our diplomas!” Of course, both of these statements are true. But as marketers, we need to address our efforts with prospective students to meet their needs as they are shopping for an educational experience — and hard-earned degree.

2. Convenience has taken on a whole new meaning

“Of course we’re convenient; we’re online.” Ten years ago, that might have been enough. However, prospective students today are shopping for a variety of features such as length of academic terms, scheduling flexibility, modes of coursework delivery, mobile accessibility, personal academic advisors and simplicity in the application process, to name a few. Addressing these important considerations is a must in your marketing efforts.

3. Responsiveness is more important than ever

Institutions that seek to attract and enroll online students need to act quickly. According to research by Aslanian Market Research and The Learning House, Inc., more than half of students enroll within three months of beginning their search for an online program.[1] They know what they need and want, and they want to do it quickly. Prospective students expect to find what they need to know in an easy-to-navigate format with pages that load quickly on a variety of mobile devices.

4. Quality and price will always matter

In many ways, higher learning institutions are similar to retailers. How is that possible? Consider this: we offer a product for a stated price, we have variety in our product lines and potential ‘customers’ can be influenced by their perception of value and quality.

5. What kind of ‘retailer’ are you?

Take a hard look at your institution. What does your ‘store’ look like?

  • Are you perceived as bargain-basement (inexpensive but lower quality), high-end (expensive but name brand recognition) or somewhere in the middle (affordable with good quality)?
  • Are there potholes in your parking lot that need repair (website is missing critical information)?
  • Do your shoppers receive a heartfelt greeting when they enter (inquiry follow-up is quick and meaningful)?
  • Are your clerks (recruiting and student services staff) respectful and responsive?
  • Is your product line (program offerings) relevant to customers’ needs?
  • Do you offer great service after the sale (ongoing support after initial enrollment)?


The competition for students is tougher than ever, but the opportunity to reach potential learners is also greater than ever. Now that your market has expanded into a world without geographical boundaries or obstacles, simply being who you are, where you are, isn’t enough. You need to serve customers so well that they’ll never want to do business with anyone but you. Institutions that understand and respond to their customers’ needs will continue to grow, while those who lack such insight will struggle in their recruitment and retention efforts.

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[1] Carol Aslanian and David Clinefelter, Online College Students: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences, June 2013