The latest trend among college administrators is to say we need to be treating our students like customers. The idea is that educators need to improve “customer service” in order to give students a better educational experience. This model doesn’t make any sense. It almost feels like administrators have taken a few MBA courses and latched onto this idea of students-as-customers as the solution to the problems faced by higher ed. With the latest financial crisis resulting in reduced endowments, the trend of states cutting funding to higher education, and a soon to be shrinking pool of students, universities are looking for ways to keep enrollment up, but treating our students as customers is not the way.
What is the biggest problem with the students-as-customers model? This leads to a sense that professors somehow owe students a passing grade and the university owes the students a diploma. This sense of entitlement is psychologically damaging to the faculty. I know this isn’t the mindset most administrators start out with, but it is an unintended consequence of the students-as-customers idea. We already deal with students (and even parents) who feel entitled to good grades in our courses (“My special little snowflake, Jonny, should get an A because he is going to med school”). I think the business model further reinforces this model and can make faculty feel like they aren’t supported by administration.
Let’s stick to the overall business mindset for a moment and take another look at universities. First off, students are not customers, nor are they products. Graduates are what higher ed “produces” and it is employers and graduate schools that “purchase” the products. This makes students the raw materials that have the potential to be turned into finely crafted diploma recipients. To keep employers happy, we need to be turning out high quality students. Following this idea, educators should be culling weaker students and admitting only the highest caliber of applicants. The problem with this model is that universities (especially public universities) have a larger responsibility to society to provide educational opportunities to residents. We have a responsibility to provide students the best chance of success we reasonably can. The business model for universities fails because we have responsibilities to differing groups that sometimes conflict. What employers and grad schools need is different than what society needs, which is different than what individual students need.
Universities are definitely businesses, and they do need to learn how to be more efficient. There is much we could learn from the business world. However, treating our students as consumers can lead to a dangerous sense of entitlement that can embolden students and undermine faculty. When a student pays tuition they are buying an opportunity to learn, they are buying access to the infrastructure of the university. It is ultimately up to the student what they do with that opportunity, whether they make the most of their learning options, or whether they spend their time on Facebook and Twitter. It is the responsibility to make sure students have access to the best educational infrastructure possible, the best faculty using the best instructional techniques, the best classrooms, libraries, and student centers, and the most efficient administration that is responsive to their needs.