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Are Students Customers? Many Factors Should Inform Our Judgment

Spring 2011

"A customer is basically passive. Consumers actively choose what they want, but the company produces it for them. In contrast, our students, readers, and community partners actively co-produce knowledge with us. They are colleagues rather than customers. We need to teach them to see themselves that way . . . "

—Peter Levine (1967- )
Director, Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Education (CIRCLE), Tufts University

Students studying


Bob Smith


Having worked in higher education for decades, I have often heard arguments such as: "We should spend money on things that matter most to the customers/students," and, "Higher education should be focused on serving its customers—its students." Such arguments are based on a somewhat simplistic model of education that focuses nearly exclusively on undergraduates and neglects several factors that influence greatly the higher education of undergraduate and post-graduate students alike. This paper offers some counter arguments to the strict customer model and suggestions for a more comprehensive view beginning with the concept of customer in a commercial milieu.

Characterizing Customers

We have all heard the adage: "The customer is always right." We also know that customers are principally receivers of goods and services, which are preferably purchased with a sense of caveat emptor or "buyer beware"—knowing that the commercial world has a dark side that includes poor-quality products and sales practices with come-ons, high-pressure tactics, bait-and-switch schemes, and outright scams. Let's consider how these elements may or may not apply to higher education and the suggested characterization of students as customers. The concept "customers are always right" is a commonly accepted marketing and management notion, but it is inherently intellectually dishonest. No individuals—customers, students, or clients—are always right, particularly from an individual-case perspective. In higher education, students seek certification—through degrees (often in accredited programs)—of learning, abilities, and skills. The certification requires objective faculty and staff judgments and assessment that should not be trumped by the customer lest program integrity be threatened.

Thoughtful reflection will also lead to questioning of the concept of students being receivers of the products of higher education, because in our information-based and innovation-driven global economy, students cannot simply be passive learners. Rather, students, faculty, and staff must be partners in learning paradigms that involve contributions from fellow learners, including other students. Thus, in the most robust and vibrant course offerings and learning environments, we find components such as group projects, debates, service learning, and independent research and scholarship with direct contributions by both undergraduate and graduate students.

Students—as opposed to customers in a commercial setting—also have a vested interest in the institution providing their credential. Thus, while the purchaser of a branded shoe might care less about the long-term health of the company producing the product, the same is not true for students and alumni. Indeed, alumni will often contact their home institutions when events occur that seem to devalue or besmirch their alma mater. Moreover, students and alumni frequently contribute resources and volunteer efforts to projects that may add value to their institution and, therefore, to their own degrees!

The final student-customer conundrum revolves around costs of credentials (e.g., certificates and degrees) received. While the commercial world is awash in sales and discounts, more often, customers pay full price for goods and services, and business people know well that unless full cost—including profit—is built into business operations, the latter will cease to exist. Contrast this situation with the so-called student customer. In public institutions, where the vast majority of US in-state students pursue their education, students rarely, if ever, pay the full cost of education. Nationally, the median annual cost (tuition and fees) of a bachelor's program for in-state students in public institutions is about $7,000 (Singletary, 2009). The full-cost for offering such degrees in public institutions is typically more than double this figure, and it is common for subsidies to come from state appropriations derived from general revenue (i.e., in Texas, driven by a state formula), funding through grants and contracts, and private donations. Thus, a student's education, particularly in a public four-year institution, is funded by a myriad of sources.

While all that has been noted above pertains to students and their relationships in academic programs, the student as a customer model does apply more fully to auxiliary services provided by a college or university. Some explanation is in order.

In contrast to academic offerings, college- or university-provided meals, housing, and parking services, among others are typically provided by units that are self-sustaining. That is, units are established through university-based finance and administration or student affairs divisions where the full cost of services (with the exception of specifically designated scholarships) must be recovered through fees, such as those for parking and meals. Accordingly, students purchasing these services generally pay full-cost, thus mimicking the actions of a customer in the private sector.

One other point cries out for attention before going on to a more unsavory side to the student-customer story. Specifically, the student—regardless of whether he or she is seeking academic or auxiliary services—whether he or she is an undergraduate, graduate, or post-graduate professional student—deserves respect and a level of friendly and courteous service that is generally a mark and a legend at Texas Tech University (TTU). In instances where this is allegedly not the case, administrators throughout the chain of command have an obligation to adjudicate solutions. Following is a more global perspective on such matters—starting with student and family choices of higher learning institutions.

The Dark Side of the Student-Customer Story

Customers generally try to avoid the unsavory aspects of business: poor quality products, come-ons, high-pressure sales tactics, bait-and-switch schemes, and scams. Thus, the concept of caveat emptor should be ever-present in the consumers' minds.

Notwithstanding the recent allegations of shady dealings in some for-profit higher education institutions (Golden, 2009; Gimein, 2010), the incidence of questionable practices (of the type enumerated above) in accredited private and public higher education institutions is rare. Nevertheless, students and prospective students and their family members are wise to seek out information on the differing quality, characteristics, commitments, and values of institutions before applying and certainly before enrolling therein.

Illuminating the World of Higher Education Institutions

Fortunately, there is much illuminating information available about higher education institutions. Even the novice seeker will be aware of ranking and assessment systems published by the U.S. News & World Report (2010), The Princeton Review (2010), Fiske Guide (2010), and Peterson's Planner (2010), among others. Besides these mostly commercially based reports, a large number of reputable public higher education institutions in the United States are now members of what is referred to as the Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA), which plays out in so-called college portraits (College Portrait, 2010) that are readily available on the Web.

VSA is an initiative of the non-profit American Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU; formerly the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), which represent collectively more than 500 public colleges and universities throughout the nation. The purpose of the initiative is to improve transparency and accountability among the nearly 300 participating APLU and AASCU members. These aims have been accomplished primarily through the development and accessibility of a College Portrait for Undergraduate Education for each participating institution. The college portraits—billed as No rankings, no spin . . . just the facts!—contain information vital to choosing an institution for studying and learning. According to information contained on the APLU website:

Participating institutions use the College Portrait to highlight common information prospective students and families seek in an easily understood format. College Portrait data elements include: admissions requirements, retention and graduation rates, campus community highlights, academic programs, safety, and cost of attendance, to name a few. In 2010, a College Cost Calculator was added to help prospective students estimate their individual net cost to attend a specific university. The application is available at no additional charge for participating institutions and will meet the requirements of the Higher Education Opportunity Act.

After logging onto the College Portrait website, prospective students can access individual portraits through an interactive map of the United States or through a more specific set of search functions based on institutional name, proximity to home address, or institutional size. TTU is a participant in the VSA, and its college portrait can be found at http://www.collegeportraits.org/TX/TTU.

In addition to its college portrait, Texas Tech is in full compliance of House Bill 2504 (i.e., passed in 2009 by the Texas Legislature), and makes available to enrolled and prospective students cost of attendance and other Internet-based information on courses and instructors of record at the university. Specifically, syllabi are available for all courses within three clicks to the public, along with information on the educational background and research productivity of all instructors of record, including results of student evaluations of courses taught previously. Thus, while the metaphor of customer does not entirely fit the academic life of college or university students, consumer-type information on colleges, universities, and instructors and their performance is readily available, especially in Texas.

In summary, I have considered the concept of students as customers and appropriateness or lack thereof of relevant terminology—depending on the activities students are engaged in at public higher education institutions. Offered too is a brief review of the participatory nature of students in their own education and how such participation takes form at a university such as TTU. I ended with a short description of information resources available to help prospective and enrolled students in decision making related to their own educational programs. Readers' comments and suggestions are welcome and should be directed to Bob Smith.


College Portrait. 2010. Washington, DC: American Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities; http://www.collegeportraits.org

Fisk Guide to Colleges. 2010. Alstead, NH: Fiske Guide to Colleges.

Gimein, Mark. 2010. "How For-Profit Colleges Are Like Subprime Mortgages." ABC News; http://abcnews.go.com/Business/TheBigMoney/profit-colleges-subprime-mortgages/story?id=10949046

Golden, Daniel. 2009. "Marine Can't Recall His Lessons at For-Profit College (Update 2)," Bloomberg; http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=al8HttoCG.ps

Peterson's Planner. 2010; http://www.petersons.com

Singletary, Michelle. 2009. "The Color of Money." Washington Post; http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/10/21/AR2009102103664.html?sub=AR

The Princeton Review. 2010; http://www.princetonreview.com

U. S. News & World Report. 2010. "Best Colleges"; http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges

About the Author

Bob Smith serves as provost and senior vice president at Texas Tech University.

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