We must treat students like customers in continuing education.

Let’s Get Over Ourselves: Students are Customers, Now and Forever

As with any paradigm shift, the idea that institutions must treat students as customers has come under heavy criticism. Higher education’s old guard has been resistant to this fundamental switch, but that resistance unfortunately leaves institutions unable to meet the needs and expectations of today’s students.

In the face of overwhelming evidence, many detractors have been forced to admit that, “yes, students today are behaving like customers.” So now, rather than trying to argue that students aren’t customers, they’re instead arguing that treating students like customers will turn an institution into a degree mill.

This line of argument, however, ignores the needs, goals and aspirations of the non-traditional student population (and even the Gen Z traditional student population!).

Colleges and universities absolutely need to treat their students like customers, and this is not a bad thing. The move to improve the student experience and student choice has led institutions to take great strides in efficient and effective management. It has allowed institutions to save resources and has improved the diversity of options available to learners. It’s led institutions to put as much attention on retention as has traditionally been placed on access, which has a significant impact on hitting the 60 percent attainment rate target.

Let’s quickly revisit why it’s worth focusing on delivering a great student experience. In the first lecture in this series, “Redefining the Student Experience”, we shared the University of Maryland University College’s findings that after three bad experiences with administrative bureaucracy, students will drop out.

That’s not issues with the academic programs, or concerns about the rigour of the program. That’s purely chalked up to bad customer experiences.

Higher education institutions seem dedicated to the idea that a bad customer experience somehow contributes to character-building… but do we really think adult learners—who are juggling a career and a family while trying to make time for their ongoing learning—need that character-building? And, if we’re truly honest, do we think offering a worse customer experience than cable companies, airlines and other often-maligned industries somehow equates to preparing students to enter the world of work?

What’s more, that approach only really works when colleges are the only game in town. As more and more learners see postsecondary education as a fungible product, the capacity to treat customers poorly decreases substantially as prospective students begin looking at other local institutions and begin searching out online options.

If we’re really honest with ourselves, I think we’d all agree that these arguments are silly. But then we come back to the old standby: “If students are customers, then they’ll expect to coast through their programs because ‘the customer is always right’, right?”


“To be clear, “students as customers” does not mean that the customer is always right,” wrote Heather Chakiris, Chief Student Experience Officer at UCLA Extension, in her article on The EvoLLLution.” “We are still educational institutions, of course, and we have policies and processes in place to protect academic integrity, student privacy, and governing financial regulations. To my mind, “students as customers” means we don’t force them through arbitrary processes that are intentionally complex.”

That’s what the customer service mentality drives at. We’re not simply pushing learners through postsecondary programs. Instead, we’re building an institutional infrastructure that allows them to spend their limited time and energy on their studies rather than bureaucratic red tape.

In her article on The EvoLLLution, Emerson College’s Lesley Nichols (who serves as Executive Director for Professional Studies) outlined why it’s important for postsecondary leaders to recognize that modern learners are customers who need to be convinced of the ROI of their postsecondary investment.

“Critics understandably express concern that treating students as customers could potentially dilute the quality of education by focusing on the money and simply rubber-stamping diplomas to earn a quick dollar. Unfortunately, there are bad actors in our industry reinforcing this negative stereotype.

But “customer” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Our industry has an opportunity to demonstrate ethical standards by acknowledging and supporting the prospective student decision process. The impact is twofold—effective time spent communicating with prospective students who become matriculating students, and truthful conversations that may reveal a mismatch before it’s too late.

Sometimes this means you may lose a potential student whose needs can’t be met at your school. However, taking steps upfront to ensure the best match can result in better yield and retention. Skipping this dialogue might get you the quick sale but result in stop-outs or student dissatisfaction impacting the reputation of your institution.”

This mindset is essential to serving modern learners. These individuals are making significant investments in their development and growth, and postsecondary institutions of all stripes—regardless of the offering learners enroll in—have a responsibility to ensure they’re getting the absolute most out of that investment.

“We believe our students are our customers who are paying good money, who are going into debt, to attend our campus and it’s our job to ensure they’re not only receiving a rigorous education that will help them get a job in the future, but that they’re also able to understand and navigate the requirements of CSU Global,” said Becky Takeda-Tinker, President of Colorado State University-Global Campus, in an interview with The EvoLLLution. 

“We call that attention and understanding, and I guess other places and organizations call it customer service.”


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Last updated: November 1, 2020


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