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Students are Customers Whether We Want to Admit it or Not (Part 2)

Students are Customers Whether We Want to Admit it or Not (Part 2)
Institutions’ dependency on their students and the demand for institutions to assess student satisfaction necessarily grants students ‘customer’ status.
This is the final instalment of a two-part series exploring the customer status of the modern student. In the first part, Roark shared the first two factors that identify students as customers; namely, their choice between institutions and capacity to access higher education at any number of levels, regardless of socioeconomic status. In this part, Roark outlines his final three points.

3. Payment

Students are customers as defined by their options for paying for education, and the expectation of a quality service in response to that payment. In the K-12 system, the costs of the service (teaching and operations of the school) largely go unnoticed to the primary consumer (the K-12 students and their parents). However, the costs of higher education are readily known and available to the students, and the method of payment then becomes a choice. It is the quantification of these costs that heightens the choice factor in higher education purchases, and the economics of the decision impacts other student and institution-driven factors such as brand loyalty, location, programs of study and career goals. Once a student — as a customer — has decided on which higher education provider and service to use, the method of payment and whether or not to pay at all becomes an additional economic decision in which weighing the costs and benefits of paying the institution becomes central.

Some would argue too many students’ postsecondary educational pursuits are subsidized or underwritten by scholarships, grants and financial aid for the payment to be a defining characteristic of a customer. But this is no different than elsewhere in consumer society. All consumer choices and methods of payment are bound by many parameters, including geography, availability and diversity of vendors, social class and affordability, cultural experience and access to credit. The increased access to credit (good or bad) has allowed consumers from all backgrounds to purchase and consume goods and services that, not too long ago, were only available to the wealthy. Similarly, educational choices are bound by the same set of parameters and student credit has increased access to educational options formerly reserved for the privileged.

The point here is not to discuss whether the subsequent increase in student loan debt or higher education costs as a whole are good or bad, but rather that these dynamics have increased consumer behavior among students.

4. Dependency

Businesses must have products or services to sell and customers that want to purchase those products in order to exist. The same is true for higher education institutions. It is this total dependency on student attendance that solidifies students as customers. There are businesses and sectors of the economy that have become dependent on government funds to operate, and many would argue public higher education falls into this category. But the subsidies and funding streams are largely based on student enrollment and attendance, and increasingly on metrics of student success.

As such, our response to our dependence on students is crucial to the very existence of higher education institutions in an increasingly competitive market.

5. Relationships Between Students and Institutions

Some postsecondary educators may be scornful of the notion of students as customers because they believe a customer or client relationship with students somehow cheapens the educational experience — that because customers have expectations, the pupil/instructor relationship somehow dissolves. However, treating students as valued customers in no way detracts from the importance of human development and relationships in education. For instance, I grew up in a very small town and thus my family frequented the same few stores and restaurants. Over time, we got to know the proprietors very well and built relationships predicated on mutual respect and trust. Yes, there were exchanges of money for goods or services, but that was a catalyst for building trust among people, not its dissolution.

Interestingly, higher education institutions already treat students as customers in many ways. First, colleges invest lots of money in marketing and advertising — as would any business — in order to attract new customers (students, in our case). Colleges have become adept at creating and dispersing quality print material, advertising in multiple formats and embracing social media as a marketing tool. Some colleges even use complex analytics and demographic tools to target key groups of consumers as potential students. Colleges also seek to build brand loyalty through the use of mascots, logos and colors on clothing and myriad goods. While this is often associated with college athletics, even that association is a tool colleges employ to attract other students (as customers). Finally, the students’ evaluations of courses given at the end of each term are akin to customer satisfaction surveys that permeate the consumer marketplace. These surveys better inform the instructors of students’ perceptions of the class. Good instructors then take these students’ perceptions and suggestions for changing the class into account to improve future students’ experiences and increase learning through improved course design and delivery. This is the very same tool businesses use to gauge the perceptions of their customers and make changes as appropriate to increase customer satisfaction.


While college faculty employ this last customer-focused practice, it is college faculty who often dismiss the students-as-customers paradigm. The reasons for this vary, but may include: holding to traditional views about faculty-student relationships; that is, the belief that customer service is an affront to academic freedom, that treating students as customers actually hinders students’ development of self-responsibility, that faculty will be blamed for customer dissatisfaction, that the learning environment is not a product or that faculty expertise should not be commoditized.

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