The Student is Not "The Customer"
In recent years, it's become a thing in higher education to consider the student a customer. This shift comes along with others we're all familiar with:
Higher Education is now thought of as an industry
Higher Ed leadership has emerged as a distinct set of disciplines
Higher Ed administration has borrowed heavily from the business world in its management and marketing practices
Healthy habits and systems have come along with these shifts, certainly, and they've enabled many an institution to prioritize necessary growth and innovation.
There's one area we'd like to challenge: the idea of the student as the Customer.
It is true that the student is a Customer, of a sort, in that they are choosing our products and services, paying for them, and hopefully having a more joyful and fulfilled life as a result. But there are many other Customers in our value ecosystem.
The local community, region, and State are Customers in a sense because they, too, are investing in our product and service. They want good taxpayers, citizens, and contributors to society such that they are paying us for that. This is a business exchange for them.
Large and small businesses, from corporations to hospitals to retail outlets and therapy practices, are also our Customers in that our students are the "product" they are buying to do what they do.
Our alumni are Customers -- not only because they once were students, but also because the value of their degrees goes up as we produce quality students, programs, and as we elevate our institutional profile.
And there are, of course many, many other Customers, from those who rely on our research and creative activity, to civic organizations who rely on our expertise, and more.
It is fair to think of our students as Customers, certainly, especially when we engage in the Customer Service required to create what our Broadwell College of Business & Economics would refer to as Customer Delight. Customer Delight happens when we have exceptional service, welcoming and beautiful environments for learning and living, and systems for monitoring all the bottlenecks where a Customer Experience might go awry.
At the same time, too much focus in recent years has settled into the idea of the students as only or chief Customer, when they are but some among many. When we spend money on new buildings but cannot afford to renew faculty lines. When we focus too much on creating careers as the product while neglecting the citizenship parts of our duty. When we invest in student activities at a blistering pace compared to academic program budgets. And so on.
So the student is a valuable customer, but not the valuable Customer.
But this isn't just a semantic distinction about the definite article. It is also about the word "Customer," and the loaded meanings that come with it that can obstruct and limit the nature of our engagement with students in deep teaching and learning.
We prefer to borrow from our colleagues in the social sciences, social work, sports, education, business, nursing, and the arts. What happens if we can expand our notion of the student as Customer to include:
The student as Client
The student as Player
The student as Patient
The student as Partner
The student as Collaborator
What happens when we think of faculty, staff, and administrators not as Customer Service operatives, but see them as:
Our sense is that, bound by the pressures of trying to create a "professional" and Customer-oriented environment, we do not think about these ways of relating to students on the institutional level. Individual faculty and departments certainly often engage these kinds of relationships to great effect. But at the institutional level, we think our culture is dominated by Business/Customer thinking only.
What's more, we often don't get that far. How many meetings have you sat in where the student is featured as the product, not the Customer? Every metric about enrollment, retention, and graduation places the student in the product position, not the Customer one. There is certainly work to be done here.
What would happen if our meetings and priorities focused on whether and how we are cultivating work with our students beyond the transactional model and into more relational approaches? How might our work be transformed?