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Higher education is a business and students are customers

Higher education is a business. Students are customers. I realize that your opinion is probably already on one side or another of this particular set of concepts. While I think that most of us would like to say that people pay for higher education to experience the joy of learning, the reality of the systems that make up higher education is that people go to school to pay the bills. Individuals attend a college or university as a means to an end. In a global environment where goods and services cost money, education is often the best way to increase one's financial standing. Students pay for their degrees. Degrees are often paid for via a credit arrangement in the form of financial aid. Debt is part of the process. It reminds me of buying car. The bank provides a loan to cover the cost and the car's cost is acceptable due to its overall utility and value.

In higher education, we often thumb our noses at those who would call our industry a "business." Plus, for a lot of student affairs practitioners and faculty, the premise of students as "customers" is taken with a bitterness similar to ingesting a cough syrup. However, it's time to wake up from our collective hypocrisy when it comes to the business to which we contribute. Money is exchanged, debt is incurred, and a valuable asset in the form of a degree, certificate, or badge is obtained.

Certain components of the business of higher education are readily identified. Admissions is the sales team. Athletics (at least for the major money sports) are a never-ending cash cow, brand vehicle, and alumni-giving machine. Academic advising and residence life are the customer service centers. Academic programs are the product...the most valuable product that schools offer.

Now, this is probably going to rile some folks up. I get it. We call advising "teaching" and student affairs is all about "student development." Well, I suppose it all calls for a bit of nuance. In a traditionally-aged collegiate environment, development is essential. After all, most young people are still caught up in a maturation process that will involve a lot of dissonance. Keeping those folks at our schools, often called "retention" and "engagement" is quite similar to what businesses do when they try to retain their customers. This is why we sometimes try really hard to retain students (and increase an overall campus retention percentage) even if our particular program or school isn't a good fit for all.

I know, it's all a bit of semantics. However, calling ourselves anything but a business seems unfair and untrue. Students pay a great deal for the product that is higher education.

Shouldn't we acknowledge that non-profit status is really a financial boon for a massive system of businesses? Heck, when the for-profit industry came "on the scene," they went after profits with a cutthroat set of tactics and actions that were straight out of a business playbook. Non-profits have long-benefitted from state funding, federal grants, and years of not having to pay taxes. It makes sense that the business practices of non-profit colleges and universities vary quite a lot from their for-profit competitors. The nature of "the game" has changed. For-profit universities, non-profit universities, community colleges, workforce education programs, competency-based learning initiatives, the rise of badges, and the spread of online learning are all part of this "business" that we call higher education.

When I enrolled at Indian Hills Community College (IHCC) in Ottumwa, Iowa, it was due to a single conceit: I didn't want to spend the rest of my life doing manual labor to earn a living. I believed that a college degree (I went to the University of Northern Iowa after earning an associate degree at IHCC) was the answer to being able to pursue a career where I would get paid for my thoughts and ideas. The most-expensive things that I have ever purchased have been my college degrees. They are also the most-valuable "products" that I have ever purchased. My degrees involved several businesses, and in my case, a very happy customer.


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