Are Students their Universities or Colleges’ Customers

Are university or college (I will refer to both as college) students customers where they attend? I do not mean a student-as-customer’s movement that hikes revenues, lowers quality, and coddles students. That approach violates the college’s mission, vision, and values, and enables entitlement-minded students. I disagree with it. Instead, I refer to a unique partnership between a college and students. The college delivers its vision and mission and students do their best with what exists.

To answer the student-as-customer’s question, we must consider key traits of a customer and the core features of a firm. I will address the vital customer and business relationship later. Before I do, however, I want to share a key statistic from the research (Bell, 2016): 91% said a college’s administration should treat college students as customers. Eighty-four percent said professors are different. Students are not their clients, but professors should get to know their needs and provide a proper basis for them to learn.

In this paper, I examine these areas:

  1. The customer and business exchange
  2. Anatomy of good customer relationships
  3. What the best college teachers do
  4. Perceptions of college students’ role as customers
  5. Treat college students as customers but don’t compromise values and standards
  6. Organizational structure of colleges
  7. Survey findings
  8. Conclusions

College Students Are Customers

The customer and business exchange

College Students Are Partners and Customers of Their Universities
College Students Are Partners and Customers of Their Universities

Who is a customer? A person or firm that buys goods or services from another person or organization is a customer or client. That’s it. You are a customer when you buy coffee from Starbucks, an iPhone from Apple, a case study from Harvard, or when you take a course from the University of Regina.

Is the customer always right? As a summer student at Selfridges, London, England, in the 1960s, that was the mantra I learned. Selfridges’ views were simple. Listen to the customer, understand her and accept what she says about the product or service. Don’t argue with the customer. After the customer leaves, assess what she said, discuss it with your supervisor, and he will advise the proper treatment. Does this attitude apply to a college today? Yes! Colleges must listen to students’ feedback, and where necessary, change. 

When a customer meets her investment advisor, she expects expert advice. So, too, with students. They must understand colleges have standards they won’t compromise—grades, degrees, or other outcomes. Although, as a customer, the student should expect suitable results for her payment. And that’s the greatest challenge we face. What is the student buying? I will develop this later.

What is a business? Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines it as the activity of making, buying, selling goods, or providing services in exchange for money. A firm’s contract to do work for a client is a trade. The firm offers products or services, while the client gets the goods or service.

What should a student expect in this exchange? Should she expect a particular degree and a job in her field of study? A college can’t promise either. But, a college must be clear on its deliverables to students. Transparency is the only way to deal with student entitlement syndrome.

A college must give what it promises through its vision, mission, and values, and in courses’ syllabi. Delivery must include handy access to needed facilities, and teachers devoted to engaging students and engineering an environment in which they learn (Bains 2004, p.20). Students must work to their peak potential in the environment. Success flows out of the alliance between the college and the student; it’s hard to measure since students’ grades do not mean success.

Many people do not accept the students-as-customer’s view because they do not know a firm’s purpose. They regard making money as a firm’s primary goal.  Others think a firm must cater to every customer’s demand, even the irrational ones. Both views are wrong. No successful business’ goal is to make money. That’s a byproduct. Besides, firms will go only so far to keep unfair, demanding customers.

Anatomy of Good Customer Relationships

Let us review what a few experts say about business. The late management guru and author Peter Drucker (2008, p. 20) said there is only one valid definition of business purpose: To create a customer. How do firms do this? They develop, maintain, and provide superior goods and services. Consider what Richard Branson (August 2014), Virgin Airlines’ billionaire CEO, has to say: business is about people, people, people:

“To learn whether what we’re doing is working; we listen to feedback from our employees, which we gather through ordinary conversations and through satisfaction surveys. We also measure success by referrals, since there is no stronger endorsement than when an employee tells a friend or relative that a company is a great place to work.”

Notice that Branson speaks about employees. He knows superb customer relations start with vital rapport with staff at all levels in the firm. Glassdoor’s research (2015) shows that a happy culture at work leads to better company results. The opposite is true.

One of the most profitable airlines in the USA, Southwest Airlines, uses the same principle. In a CBS (2007) interview, Herb Kelleher, the airline’s former chairman said:

“You put your employees first and if you take care of them, then they will take good care of you, then your customers will come back, and your shareholders will like that, so it’s really a unity.”

Successful firms know an employee-centric firm forms an engaged workforce. And a focused team makes a healthy entity. Steel producer Nucor Corp (nucor.com, 2016) has a no-layoffs policy. Southwest, FedEx, Aflac, Toyota Motor North America do not have formal no-layoffs policies, but they have never laid off an employee. Southwest Airlines never lost money during the Great Recession and following September 2011 tragedy. This feat is rare when we realize that air travel dropped sharply because of these two events. Further, most airlines in the USA had major lay-offs, and some went bankrupt from these things.

Colleges are people-intensive. Administrators and professors design and maintain structures for students to learn—that’s the theory. It’s all about people. Jim Collins says (2001, p. 13), “‘People are your most important asset’ turns out to be wrong. The right people are.” Marriott Hotel’s principles include “go to every length to find, hire, and train good employees and treat them like your family. This is the crux of your whole operation.” Harvard Business Review (2014) article, Netflix Reinvented Hr, highlighted Netflix’s common-sense approach to human resource management. It showed a policy focused on empowering and treating people with respect.

Jesus taught us the essence of all relations. In Matthew 22:36-40, He reminds us of the Shema in Deuteronomy 6, and then points out the second greatest commandment: love others as you love you. When we apply this edict, we will earn trust and respect from students. Great institutes focus on employee’s delight because they know happy employees will provide excellent customer service.

Colleges are businesses, too. They provide services for money; some colleges do this for profit, while others are not for profit. Whether for profit, each college should provide the best service to users of those services—students.

Colleges must assure students they are not buying a degree or access to their dream jobs. This is a huge challenge; but one the college must meet. It differs from the typical exchange in a business activity. There, the customer’s effort has minimal  impact on the benefits she gains. At the college, the student must work hard to gain benefits she wants while the college does its best, too. Success is in the journey and results from the unity between the student and the college. The college provides the best climate for the student to flourish, and the student takes maximum advantage of facilities.

The college’s administration and faculty are key players. They must know their roles in this partnership with students. And someone should hold them liable to carry out their roles. Colleges must hire the right people, organize and deploy them in the right spots, to produce superb relationships. This approach will be crucial to deliver the right quality learning space for students. It is the least the college can do. 

What the Best College Teachers do

Ken Bains’ book, What the Best College Teachers Do, stems from a fifteen-year study of about 100 colleges and university teachers. It offers insights to teachers to get the best from their students:

“At the core of most professors’ ideas about teaching is a focus on what the teacher does rather than what students are  supposed to learn.… In contrast, the best educators thought of teaching as anything they might do to help and encourage students to learn. Teaching is engaging students, engineering an environment in which they learn.” (Bains 2004, p.20).

Bains’ work shows that the best teachers have a thorough knowledge of their subjects, and they know how to engage and challenge students to produce passionate responses. Most of all, Bains believe two things: teaching matters and students can learn.

Bains didn’t seek to tackle, and so did not address whether students were customers. He examined the most effective ways to teach students to improve the probability they will learn. Whether we call students customers, whether the context is Christian, we must respect students, treat them with dignity, and do to them what we would like done to us. It’s that simple. If we don’t like the word “customers,” let’s use another, but colleges must seek to create and maintain conditions for students to learn.

Perception of College Students’ Role as Customers

Randall Franz (1998) concluded, “treating students like customers undermines their education. Catering to their every need and desire to delight the customer robs students of an active role in their own education.” This conclusion shows a lack of understanding of the unique business a college operates. My dentist does not cater to my every need and desire to delight me. She told me, her customer, to my dismay, I needed a root canal! So, too, with the college, it has standards that it must maintain, even though some students might not like.

Treena Gillespie Finney and R. Zachary Finney (2010, pp. 276-291), research noted that,  “consistent with exchange theory, students who perceived themselves as customers were more likely to feel entitled and to view complaining as beneficial.” We must expect some students to feel and act entitled. They might even be the majority. But this is just another test for the college when engineering the learning environment. Entitlement and victim cultures pervade society, not only by students. So, it should not surprise us when these attitudes seep into colleges. The issue is to stay alert to them, deal with them, but we must not excuse them. 

Sometimes marketing leads the students-as-customers’ idea to stop revenues from falling or to grow revenues. When this happens, students see good short-term gains, but with lower quality education and less taxing courses. This is bad for students who wish to study at those colleges (Watjatrakul, 2014). Colleges that adopt these schemes to hike income are phony and unethical—they won’t survive long-term.

Treat College Students as Customers but don’t Compromise Values and Standards

Colleges must treat students as customers because that is who they are. And it is the right thing to do. Serving students as clients means the right people giving excellent services as good firms do to their clients in line with their vision, mission, values, and goals. Colleges must stay true to their visions and missions and face the brutal facts (Collins, 2001, p. 13) of students’ entitlement culture, and politically correct views. Colleges must not excuse these behaviors and appease “victims.” If colleges agree with these demands from students, the college will plunge into the absurd where it replaces math with diversity as a course needed to graduate as happened once (Detroit Free Press, 2016).

Colleges must resist the temptation to compromise their mission, values, and principles to chase growth.  When a college chooses growth as a goal, that’s not wise, it will assume it must cater to every student and might lower standards. Most of all, colleges need to work to wipe out asinine, bureaucratic practices.

I meet several students with entitlement attitudes at my college. But that does not detract from my goal to create the best learning conditions possible for my students. After two unsuccessful attempts to meet a student for a routine meeting, he told me he was busy, and I needed to keep trying to find a date that fits his schedule. This attitude epitomizes entitlement! Later, we met, and he understood that his behavior contradicted his goal as a future business person. I presented word-pictures of the potential adverse effects of his behavior in different contexts. He got it!

My students know I will do everything workable to help them learn., They know when they are late for a lecture they cannot attend that class. Still, students know when I do not agree in advance to accept their papers late, I won’t take those papers after their due dates. The essence of our exchange is this:  I am committed to creating the best learning conditions for them, and I expect them to commit to learning. To help cement this partnership, I explain my standards in writing before the course starts, and discuss them during my first class. I enforce these standards politely.

I apply three principles to all students. First, I love students equally but treat them uniquely. I do not treat students equally. Second, I commit to treating each as I want them to treat me. Third, I commit to the TAP principle: to be transparent, approachable, and predictable. It’s difficult to reach college students, but we must keep doing what we know is right.

Businesses don’t change their ways to serve customers because clients have poor attitudes. Over time, they reach those clients the right way. But, sometimes they agree they won’t be able to satisfy some patrons. Colleges must study themselves, learn about their clients (students), and ensure their products, and services are helpful to students.  Staying up-to-date with students’ needs is ongoing, challenging, and rewarding.

Organizational Structure of Colleges

Why don’t most colleges strive for excellence in engineering environments for students to learn and grow? I think two basic reasons exist.

First, many colleges do not earn 100% of  their incomes. Students pay fees, but often that’s not enough to cover the full costs of their education. So, governments, donors, alumni, and others make up the gap. Where an entity does not have to earn its income, it becomes sloppy and bureaucratic and does not promote excellence. Since leaving my private-sector job over 14 years ago, I went on the board of several non-profits and I have not seen a sustaining focus on excellence in their services’ delivery.

It’s no secret that alumni and donors who believe in a non-profit’s cause do not demand excellence from bodies they fund. Instead, they give time and cash but do not hold leaders to account for how they use those funds to do the entity’s mission. That’s why these leaders have an escape hatch. They know they can fill financial gaps with emotional appeals. Then again, many non-profit leaders do not focus on difficult, people-related causes, but discuss fiscal symptoms. This leads to a vicious cycle: poor results, excuses, emotional appeals, more funds.

Leaders in non-profits do not have the push from investors to deliver fair returns on their funds. This lack of impetus masks defects that gives an entity a toxic culture. That’s why college leaders must develop, track, and measure themselves against related key performance metrics (Waal, D.A., Goedegebuure, R., & Geradts, P., 2011). This is the only way they will become good stewards of funds turned over to them the mission. Still, accountability must start at the board level. The board must hire, train, empower, and reward the right leaders in the entity. These leaders must choose capable people to do the entity’s mission and goals.

Though not dealing with college fundraising, University of Pennsylvania’s Marketing faculty (2007) reported professor Deborah Small and others’ research findings that reinforce the power of emotional appeals.

Second, many colleges’ set up creates conflicts between the faculty and the administration. Faculty senates (us) handle faculty and academic issues, while the executive (them) looks at the rest of the college. Faculty senate (senate) models (Minor, 2002) vary, but each divides and diverts from focus on students. Sometimes, the senate is the final voice on vital matters, even though they impact the mission. How can the board allow the senate to do this?  It is silly and creates a basis to veer from the college’s vision for which the leaders and board must have the final say.

Not enough research exists on faculty senates (Lee, B. 1991). But we know an unfriendly relation between the executive and the faculty will cause bad results. My alma mater, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is one of a few big colleges with no senate. One faculty at MIT said: “I believe at MIT we aspire to be a community in which the administration and the faculty are in harness together…” that is why we do not have a senate.

With the faculty senate and executive divide, colleges do not treat folks the way good firms do. Colleges rely on professors’ intrinsic motivation to step out of the historic role Bain mentions in his book. Many professors take up this challenge. But others do not have the innate motivation and a toxic climate exist because of this divide. This leads to executives and senate at odds and they ignore the real task of serving students’ needs. For executives, the safe way out is fundraising; thus, they leave the senate to run the college.

Each of these two issues is big. Colleges do not rely on income from students to exist. So, the impetus to offer quality service to students is weak. Thus, the systemic faculty and executive conflict distract leaders and they do not focus on offering a quality education to students. This divide gives a lack of a merged regard to develop the best learning climate. Thus, we should expect that colleges do not consider students as valued customers.

Survey Findings

Sixty-four people of 100 replied to my ten-question survey titled: A Customer Buys Goods and Services from an Organization. Are College Students Customers of Their Colleges? Ninety-one percent said colleges should serve students as customers. But the most surprising finding was 44 percent of those who attended public colleges said their colleges treated them as customers. This compares with 33 percent who attended private colleges. I expected the reverse. Here are some other facts from the survey:

  • 61% attended private colleges
  • 63% (56% public, 67% private) said colleges did not treat them as customers
  • 63% said college students are customers because they paid fees
  • 17% said we should not treat college students as customers because academia differs from business
  • 84% of those treated like customers believed this created a better study environment for them
  • 84% said professors should be sensitive and responsive to specific student needs (most stressed that professors must not succumb to college students’ unreasonable demands, but should respond with empathy)
  • 66% were male

Many folks said colleges should treat students as customers, but the student and professor relation is distinct from the administration and student role.  

I sent the survey to a cross-section of (100) people. Students who attend or attended public and private colleges; current and past students; male and female; folks in Canada and USA, college executives and faculty members.

Conclusions

Academic research on this subject looks at college students as customers as a “movement.” It focuses either on colleges that adopt this way to raise income, or students pursuing this option looking to lower the colleges’ standards. These are wrong reasons to take this path. We need more research to look at the effects on colleges that adopt the partnership idea posited in this paper.

It’s time we figure out that treating college students as customers is not a fad, but a proper way to operate. Colleges that follow this path will grow and students will wish to attend. But mostly, those colleges will develop a sustainable competitive advantage. We must value college students as clients. This means colleges must offer their best for students to learn, grow, and be useful to society. It does not mean we should appease them or accept entitled, victim behaviors. 

© 2016 Michel A Bell

References

Bains, Ken – What the Best College Teachers Do, Boston, Harvard University Press, 2004, page 20.

Bell (2016):  http://www.managinggodsmoney.com/CollegeStudentsCustomers-64reply.pdf

Branson, Richard (2014): https://www.virgin.com/entrepreneur/richard-branson-why-business-is-about-people-people-and-people (Accessed June 24, 2016)

CBS News (2007): http://www.cbsnews.com/news/something-special-about-southwest-airlines/, (accessed June 30, 2016)

Collins, Jim. Good to Great, New York, NY: Harper Business, 2001, p13

Detroit Free Press (2016), http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/detroit/2016/06/12/wayne-state-drops-math-general-ed-requirement/85648592/

Drucker, Peter, F.,  The Essential Drucker: The Best of Sixty Years of Peter Drucker’s Essential Writings on Management, New York, New York, HarperBusiness; Reissue edition, Jul 22 2008, p20

Finney, Treena Gillespie, and Finney R. Zachary, Are students their universities’ customers? An exploratory study, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Education & Training, Vol. 52 No. 4, 2010, pp. 276-291

Franz, Randall. S., Whatever you do, don’t Treat your Students Like Customers! Journal of Management Education February 1998 22: 63-69,

Glassdor, https://research-content.glassdoor.com/app/uploads/sites/2/2015/05/GD_Report_1.pdf, (accessed June 30, 2016)

Harvard Business review (2014) https://hbr.org/2014/01/how-netflix-reinvented-hr, (accessed July 3, 2016)

Lee, B. (1991). Campus leaders and campus senates. New Directions for Higher Education, 1991(75), 41-61.

Waal, D.A., Goedegebuure, R., & Geradts, P. (2011). The impact of performance management on the results of a non‐profit organization. International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, 60(8), 778-796.

Watjatrakul, B. (2014). Factors affecting students’ intentions to study at universities adopting the “student‐as‐ customer” concept. International Journal of Educational Management, 28(6), 676-693. (accessed July 5, 2016)

Wharton, Marketing (2007) http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/to-increase-charitable-donations-appeal-to-the-heart-not-the-head/ (Accessed July 4, 2016)

Michel A. Bell

Michel A. Bell is a former senior business executive, author of six books (including Business Simplified released in 2018), speaker, and adjunct professor of business administration at Briercrest College and Seminary. Michel is a Fellow of the Chartered Certified Accountants (UK), holds a Masters of Science in management degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Doctor of Business Administration honoris causa from Briercrest College and Seminary. He is founder and president of Managing God's Money.

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