My son and I recently went to the 2010 Masters, saw Tiger Woods come back to golf, and witnessed one of the greatest tournaments in decades. But what was most impressive to me about the Masters was not the amazing golf, or even the course itself (my son referred to it as an “outdoor museum”).
No, the most impressive thing was the actual running of the tournament and its concept of customer service. All college presidents would be well advised to attend the next Masters and study its management system. For what became crystal-clear to me as a nonprofit higher education consultant was the tournament’s very precise conception of who its customers were, compared to the very imprecise understanding by colleges and universities of who their customers are.
Here is the problem: Colleges and universities have a difficult time deciding whom they are serving. For a major golf tournament the choice is narrower: the corporate sponsors or the media or the patrons who come through the turn styles. Augusta National Golf Club, which runs the Masters very much like a nonprofit enterprise that is content to break even, views the fans who come to the course as their obvious customers.
All concessions are inexpensive (sandwiches: $1.50!); even the cost of golfware in the pro shop is reasonable. Bathrooms are strategically located, as are food stands, and every line of customers is designed to move quickly so fans can get back to the action on the course. Even the spectator locations are populated by movable chairs that the patrons over the years have bought ($29 this year) and placed where they want. Chairs are left there with one’s own marker on them, and no one sits in them but the owner, even at the most popular locations. When the day ends, you leave the course feeling cared for: You are a paying customer in the best sense.
Colleges and universities have more chaotic management systems because they are unclear about their preferred customers. Who is analogous to the fans at the Masters?
Here are the many choices for colleges, depending in part on the type of institution: enrolled students, their parents, state taxpayers, the local community, alumni donors, government granting agencies, even their Boards of Trustees -- increasingly dominated by corporate leaders. All are “paying” in one way or another.
Yet the principal customer on any college campus must be the student, and one statistic makes this fact obvious: the abysmal retention rate of students between their freshman and sophomore years. A third of all full-time college freshmen do not return for their second year. Very few have flunked out; some transfer for a major offered elsewhere or have to yield to family financial pressures. But my own experience has persuaded me that the freshmen who leave do so primarily because they were not treated as the school’s principal customers.
To take one example, colleges often treat distant parents who pay the bills as the principal customers when it comes to increasingly obscure fees -- but it is the students who must understand and rationalize those fees to their parents back home. We may think a $100 fee here or there is nothing to a middle-class parent (not true, of course), but it certainly is important to the student who wasn’t aware of it ahead of time, and does not appreciate having the issue minimized by a staff member to his or her face. If a student comes to an office on campus visibly upset about something, it should not matter how minor we think the issue is: it must be treated, for the student’s sake, as if it is major. It only takes a couple of calls home, after some insulting experiences on campus, to galvanize a family into leaving their school of choice.
In higher education, we do not know how to deal with 18-year-olds. Are they adults, despite being so needy and anxious, or are they just kids, despite being glad to be on their own for the first time? Even though sustained tuition income depends on their satisfaction on campus, we often treat them as spoiled and completely replaceable, like an object that is cheaper to throw away than to repair.
That might have seemed true when the baby boomers were sending increasing numbers of children to campuses. But in 2008 those numbers leveled off, and by 2012 they will be declining. By then, we had better figure out how to hold onto the students who, as customers, have chosen us, instead of treating them as lucky to have been chosen by us.
That has been our attitude -- that they were lucky to have been chosen by us. Perhaps that attitude is excusable at elite colleges that know their vaunted reputations will hold students on campus, even through their anxieties, for the prestige of the degree they receive. Those colleges -- only a few score nationwide regularly return 95 percent of their freshmen into the sophomore year.
But the numbers plunge from there for thousands of other colleges and universities that, until recently, have assumed there was no problem replacing the students who leave by the second year.
We must start treating freshmen as the adults they are -- but adults who are understandably apprehensive about, and sometimes irresponsible with, the freedom that college life gives them. Too often we view them as knowing how they ought to behave, even though we are less than clear about the regulations we do have and more than willing to reprimand them, condescendingly, for not knowing those regulations.
We think they do not want any rules when in fact they want our support and respect -- not permissiveness -- to mentor them on their way to the maturity they do desire It is going to be increasingly difficult to replace these young adults if we are disrespectful of them. It would be much wiser to help them manage the institution in which they have put their faith as a first step into maturity
Precisely because they are only going to be with us for a while -- as at the Masters -- we need to redouble our efforts at customer service from day one -- to take every student anxiety and complaint seriously, even if it turns out to be nothing more than normal freshman fear. Since it is reasonable for freshmen to be anxious, we must treat them as reasonable people, without being condescending or peremptory in our own attitudes.
We need to treat them as the Masters Tournament treats every one of its patrons: welcome, well-managed, and constantly appreciated.
David Stinebeck, a former college president, is President and CEO of Concordant Consulting, LLC, a firm that specializes in managing personnel issues.