Sorry, everyone: Students are not customers

Most dumb ideas are hatched by men, so I’m going to assume that whoever it was that first uttered “Students are our customers,” was probably a guy.  I’d like to kick him on his butt, although since I’m generally a pacifist, I probably wouldn’t given the chance.  Still…

The idea has been floating around as long as I can remember, probably from the very beginning of my career.  When the dumb guy first spoke the words that shall not be named, he probably meant something like, “We owe the people who pay for their education some respect; let’s not serve crappy food in the cafeteria, or make them wait needlessly in line to register (this was a long time ago, remember), and let’s make sure we keep class content up-to-date with current research and thinking.  They deserve that from us.” And, of course, it’s hard to argue with that.  If that’s what you meant, dumb guy, I apologize for calling you a knucklehead all these years.  But I do wish you would have used a different word.

The debate,cicada-like, comes back to life every so often, usually by someone who thinks they’ve discovered a new concept; and it gets kicked around, only to die off quickly and leave a bunch of bug carcasses around your back yard.  Here are the remnants of the most recent iteration.

The most obvious problem, of course, is that students don’t really know or understand what they’re “buying” in the first place.  They come to us precisely because they’re generally ignorant of what they need.  If you’re feeling bad and you go to the doctor and say, “I have a virus; give me an antibiotic,”  the doctor has an obligation to first try to figure out what’s wrong, and then, should your self-diagnosis be correct, inform you that antibiotics don’t work on a virus.”  In a similar way, we say, “If you want to be educated, this is what we say you need to do.”  And of course, no university and no doctor is ever completely right about that 100% of the time. But neither treats the people who come to them as customers.

If students were customers, and they said, “We want a keg of beer on the floor at all times,” we’d oblige.  If they wanted to get an “A” by paying extra, we’d offer that for sale.  We do neither.

Mostly, though, my criticism stems for one undeniable fact: The transactional model of business/customer just does not hold up under closer scrutiny. Consider these three scenarios:

  • You walk onto the lot of the Toyota dealer, cash in hand, and point to the model you want.  The Toyota dealer says, “Hey, not so fast.  I need to make sure you’re capable of driving first, and that you’d benefit from owning this car.”
  • You do actually buy the car, but after two months, the dealer calls you to take it back, because you’re not keeping it up to their standards.
  • Or, ten years after you buy the Toyota, someone from the “Office of Proud Toyota Owners” calls you, asks you to remember the good times you had driving your Toyota, and asks you to write a check so that others can similarly benefit from owning their own Toyota.

Is there a better model, or maybe just a better word?  I don’t think we really need a new word; we have one: It’s student.  But if you somehow feel you can’t inspire people by saying, “We should treat our students like students,” how about member?

If we treat students like members, we retain the right to refuse their money if we don’t think they can benefit from what we offer.  We can insist they live up to certain requirements to keep their membership current and in good standing. We can strive to make their experiences in the cafeteria, or the registration (electronic) lines, or the classroom as good as they can be.  And, years after they’ve “purchased” their final goods and services from us, we can ask them to renew their membership at an affiliate level.

And I’ll never have to disparage the dumb guy with my silly rants again.


2 thoughts on “Sorry, everyone: Students are not customers

  1. Really interesting take on the student-institution relationship, Jon. A further extension of this member vs. customer idea is that value doesn’t just come from the institution itself. When I buy a car, for the most part, I don’t get more value from the experience because others own the same car or buy it at the same time I do. For my education, a lot of my value comes from the other people in my class through discussions and study groups and from alumni who can share their experiences, knowledge, and networks with me as I pursue my career aspirations. And I don’t know of a whole lot of companies that shape their customer base the way that colleges shape their incoming classes so students have the opportunity to interact with a more diverse group of people, enriching their experience.

    To extend this even further, the more an institution can open up this network of fellow members, the more valuable the entire college experience.


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