Students Are Customers

Posted on January 8, 2013 by

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Viewing students as customers makes sense for universities that compete for their tuition.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that professors kowtow to student whim.  But I am suggesting that universities are indeed competing for a student’s investment of time, thought and, yes, money. Various universities offer different products from which a student and his or her parents select.

  • The “student as customer” paradigm can help a university design and deliver a product their students will want to buy. 

What is the value proposition?

From a student’s point of view, a key value that has driven, and that will continue drive the education economy is: Will this credential get me a good job?

Perhaps they also consider recreational opportunities, the weather, and perhaps whether the classes will be easy. But the job credential is paramount. That sort of value can’t be easily falsified.  Students know that certain universities and degrees have that value (or not).  And in the end employers end up making that determination, and the results are published by US News.

Ian Bogost suggests an opposing view presented in this essay by Michael Morse. Morse argues against the “student as client view:”

Consider the case of a civilian jet pilot trainee at flight school. We would never call such a person a client of their program because their training does not exist to serve their interest, which is fundamentally irrelevant. Whether the trainee enjoys the experience or likes the teachers is essentially beside the point. Such happy outcomes are a pleasant and coincidental side effect, but have nothing to do with training pilots, save to the extent that they facilitate the learning process.

The aim of that process is not to create a subjective feeling among the students, least of all “customer satisfaction.” The standard for success is achieved through student competence. A flight school succeeds only when it educates competent pilots, and in no other way.

The flaw in Morse’s argument is an assumption that student clients only consider short term “enjoyment” in the value equation.  If this were their motivation, why would any student choose Harvard (tough, expensive) over University of StateX (fun, cheap)?

To carry Morse’s pilot training analogy further: Consider that there were two competing pilot training schools.  School A is “easy” and fun, and has a very high completion rate. School B is “tough,” “expensive,” and has a lower completion rate. Finally, many more School B graduates get airline jobs than School A graduates.

Which school delivers more value?  Does anybody believe potential students won’t recognize this difference?

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