Posh Pools and Easy A’s: Students as Customers in Higher Education

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In a recent New York Times article, writer Frank Bruni laments the erosion of higher education as a result of the growing adoption of a consumer model positioning students as customers and colleges as mere providers of goods and services. This trend toward the development and marketing of upscale amenities such as resort-style pools and water parks, state-of-the-art fitness centers, and restaurant-style dining halls at the expense of investment in areas critical to academics is said to be transforming colleges and universities into “country clubs with libraries.” Indeed, students are now calling the shots and their demands are eliciting unprecedented reactions by many schools.

To be fair, higher education is only following the herd. The move toward putting the end user’s wants and needs at the center of an organizational strategy (optimizing the customer experience) is being adopted everywhere, beyond the hospitality and retail settings where it was first envisioned to every area of business, including B2B, healthcare and even the federal government.

In some ways, it’s inevitable that higher education should join in, but it shouldn’t be to the detriment of its organizational purpose.

It’s my view of the problem that many universities have had knee-jerk reactions to the idea of students as customers and have become a little confused about what they really sell. A key to great customer experience design is clarity on exactly what unique value your organization offers to the marketplace.

What value should a higher education provide? It should enhance the individual’s life opportunities through experiences that test their boundaries and capabilities (intellectually and socially), preparing them to think critically, and understand and accomplish more in their future lives than they ever could have without it.

Instead, many institutions these days seem to be selling a pleasant and entertaining four-year vacation. What does this do for a university’s brand? In the short-term, it may attract more students who find the prospect of a four-year holiday appealing. But the brand presented to prospective students is the same brand seen by prospective employers. Over time, how will the brand of a college-turned-country-club impact the desirability of its graduates as potential employees? How will its graduates feel as they look back upon their experience and the real value they received, many years later? And how sustainable of a strategy is this for universities?

There appears to be little alternative, then, given the intense competition for the best students and it’s unclear how prospective students would respond to a value proposition that reflects the true purpose of higher education, even if it invokes the reality of hard work and self-discipline.

Consider the experience offered by boot camp fitness programs, which have exploded in popularity in recent decades. Participants sign up and pay  for something that they accept will not be easy or comfortable, that in fact they know will be extremely challenging, because what boot camps are selling is so clearly-defined: the health and aesthetic benefits of a body that has been worked hard to become capable of more than it was before. Is it possible to market a better mind in the same way? Is there a lesson there for universities willing to learn it?

What will become of higher education if the current trend continues – a race toward offering the most luxurious, entertaining and comfortable path to a degree is unclear. But it may be a cautionary tale for others: in designing your customer experience, don’t allow your organization to lose sight of your purpose and the real value you’ve promised to provide.

Are you building your customer experience strategy around what you actually sell?

Published On: 20th Jul 2016 - Last modified: 17th May 2017
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