What Does Your College Staff Owe Your Students?

The higher education industry is changing. Are you changing, too? Is your institution following “market forces” by charging professors and staff to change their view of students -- to treat them like “customers” who have entered into a contractual relationship with your school?

Traditionally, higher education organizations are social institutions, dealing in the public good, rather than dealing in commodities transactions. However, “with the rise of mass higher learning, tight public funding and intense competition for students, universities are often encouraged to see students as “customers.” But should they?” asks Geoff Sharrock.

In the era of tuition in the hundreds of thousands (and the resulting student loans), tight and rarified job market, and overall prevailing consumer culture, is public good our newest commodity? 

In addition, Cathy Sandeen reminds us of today’s cultural reality: “This new generation of consumerism thrives on the deeply entrenched and common practice of sharing with and seeking out others’ opinions about products and services, made more possible and accessible by flood of ubiquitous online consumer reviews and ratings.”

Is “student experience really the same as “customer experience”?

“Delivering an exceptional customer experience is no longer a choice for institutions -- students today expect a learner-centric environment that allows them to interact and engage on their own terms,” says Bea González, Vice President for Community Engagement, Syracuse University. 

As Radka Newton reminds us, “Ask a student whether they see themselves as a ‘customer’ of their university and the answer will certainly be ‘yes’. Students have been encouraged to act as consumers from an early age, and have come to expect a high level of service in return for their engagement. They’re used to brands wanting to form and maintain relationships with them, even when there’s no payment involved.” 

 “It’s important for continuing and professional education leaders to have a customer service mentality,” González continues.

“First, our students have a lot of choices and so we have to provide value to our academic deliveries and we can provide that value by offering excellent service. The second reason is, if we’re interested in providing an excellent student experience, then we need to be concerned about customer service.”

How can a college act responsibly to its “paying customers”? 

As students’ hopes for the outcomes of their professional studies evolve with today’s customer-centric expectations, this requires schools to engage in a culture shift among staff and professors, many of whom may have an entrenched view of education as a social institution of greater good – in which they are the keepers of knowledge rather than the purveyors of a commodity. 

As an administrator, it is incumbent upon you to forge inroads into mutual understanding and the basics of today’s consumer culture. First steps include providing opportunities for frontline staff and management personnel to develop and enhance their customer service and interpersonal communications skills and capabilities.  This includes:

  • Identifying their needs and concerns as management and staff;

  • Reinforcing the important role they have at your school;

  • Underscoring that everyone – students, faculty, administration – is a customer;

  • Reinforcing the importance and value of diversity;

  • Strengthening cooperation and relationships between departments;

  • Providing tools to effectively manage the customer service process;

  • Applying techniques for managing irate and challenging students.

For more information on what Shields Mas Learning Resources has done for colleges, visit  our Clients Served page

Desander Mas