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A recent article in a higher education publication reissued a growing refrain that front-line workers in higher education should “serve their customers like those in other industries.” By doing exactly that over the past two decades, many universities have adopted a retail industry approach.

Across many campuses name tags grace the lapels of not only financial aid personnel but also deans and vice presidents. A signature higher education innovation includes customer service desks in administration buildings to facilitate “one-stop shopping.” Name tags coupled with service desks have led students to think of a university as one large department store.

As an associate dean in a professional school whose portfolio of responsibilities includes handling both undergraduate and graduate student issues, I am often the “district manager” for the department store whom students want to talk to when front-line staff do not satisfy their requests. Clearly, faculty members do not see themselves as front-line staff. But because they are the most consistently connected to students in the university experience, it should be no surprise that students may equate faculty with clerk, as they mirror the role of clerks in a retail customer service model. When a student feels that a faculty member has been unfair or that a department chair did not adequately address a concern, the dean is often summoned. In effect, they demand of the clerk, “Let me speak to the manager!”

Modeling Retail

Arguably, the reason why students have developed a retail-service mind-set is because colleges and universities have successfully promoted that mind-set as a means to attract and retain students. Today, institutions must compete more for fewer traditional-aged students than in the past. Nationwide, several universities have jettisoned ivory tower aloofness and transitioned to a business model that stresses service as a bulwark against the tide of decreasing enrollment.

Though the trend toward customer service began in the late 1970s, the past 25 years have seen the retail business model become the de facto model for higher education. Specialization of the retail business model is reflected in the institutionalization of enrollment management. Admissions, student affairs, registration, financial aid and the bursar -- once siloed -- now coalesce in enrollment management.

Increasingly, accrediting bodies, legislators, alumni and donors see retention and graduation rates, along with job attainment, as assessments of institutional effectiveness. Enrollment management has become one of the most important parts of university administration as a result, and customer service is viewed as a priority.

Customers, Consumers and Product

For all of the attention given to customer service in higher education, there is a lack of clarity surrounding customer and product. In a retail market, both the customer and product are typically easy to identify. But in service sectors of the economy, where higher education loftily sits, customer and product are more difficult to identify and require examining the origin of the modern American university.

Many public universities evolved from constitutional provisions that addressed overall education. California’s Article IX, Section 1, states that its higher education legislation is to encourage the “promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral and agricultural improvement” through a “general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people.”

The Connecticut Constitution establishes through its Article 8, Section 2, that “The state shall maintain a system of higher education, including the University of Connecticut, which shall be dedicated to excellence in higher education.” Section 3 establishes the charter for Yale University. The Constitution of Illinois in Article X, Section 1, allows the state to provide for an efficient system of high-quality public educational institutions and services.

Because state universities -- and some private universities -- were established by state constitutions and are supported by tax dollars, the actual customers of higher education are the citizens of respective states. Customers pay for a product or service. Students are consumers, not customers. Consumers use a product or service. Certainly, many students both pay for and use the product of higher education, but because higher education in the United States was created to produce an informed citizenry for a democratic society, students are clearly the consumer.

And the product?

The product in higher education is knowledge. Universities convey, store and generate knowledge and craft tools to assess mastery of knowledge. Mastery of the knowledge, knowing, is the responsibility of the student who is to consume the knowledge.

The Customer Is Always Right

There is a fundamental tension between applying the student as customer paradigm vs. society as customer paradigm to higher education. If students are the customer, then the retail model requires them to be right. The aphorism “The customer is always right” is the guiding principle. Some faculty members express experiencing a tacit pressure to relax standards based on serving the student as a customer. Customer-service logic suggests: A grades make happy students; happy students are good customers; good customers are repeat customers; repeat customers tell friends; referrals are good for business.

Yet students are not always right. And neither are universities. Not fully understanding who the customer is in higher education tends toward granting students academic concessions. At four-year colleges, the A grade has increased between five and six percentage points every decade for the last 30 years and is now three times more prevalent than in 1960. Today, the A is the most common grade at four-year institutions. Some students and parents believe that, if they complain enough, a faculty member will change a grade. And if the faculty does not, then they call the manager.

The retail model is not only about grades. Most retail establishments maintain return and exchange policies when customers are not satisfied. Students erroneously try to apply the same policies. I’ve had students who have argued, “I paid for this class and didn’t get anything out of it, so I shouldn’t have to pay.” Usually at semester’s end, a number of students inquire about getting refunds for classes they want to drop because they may not pass the class. Most recently, I encountered a graduate student who wanted a “store credit” for a class that she never completed to be applied to a different class in an upcoming semester.

Save Money, Improve Your Life

An examination of the mission statements of two of America’s leading retailers provides further insight into the misguided “student as customer” perspective. Walmart’s mission is to “Sav(e) people money so they can live better.” Target aims to be “The preferred shopping destination for our guests by delivering outstanding value, continuous innovation and an exceptional guest experience by consistently fulfilling our Expect More Pay Less brand promise.” In other words, retail missions often equate saving money with improving quality of life.

Similarly, saving money in higher education has become a focus of many legislators. Cost-cutting measures often attempt to apply the same retail business model rules embraced by parents and students. For example, some legislators have argued that low-enrollment majors should be eliminated. Philosophy is a consistently low-enrollment major across the nation, and, in any given year, less than one-half of 1 percent of all college graduates receive a degree in philosophy. So, the reasoning goes, if customers are not “buying” philosophy from the shelf of majors, then it should be eliminated since the product is not “moving.”

Unfortunately, policy makers and other people are confounding popularity with utility. (The reality show Keeping Up With the Kardashians is popular. The utility of the show is left to your judgment.) Forgotten is that the marquee degree of higher education is the Ph.D.: the doctor of philosophy. Philosophy, the study of ideas, is the foundation for all of higher education.

Using the retail model with the student as the customer severely impairs value and utility judgments. (Following the model would lead to eliminating departments of philosophy nationwide.) Central to seeing the public as the customer is an understanding that liberally educated students make good citizens. Research shows that liberally educated university graduates are correlated with civic participation, volunteering and overall health. A well-educated work force is linked to state and national financial prosperity. Highly educated citizens produce societies that have a higher quality of life.

Attention to Human Service

To be clear, I am not decrying or deriding retail customer-service attentiveness as a concept in higher education. Local DMVs have better reputations for service than many universities. Bureaucracy, long lines and telephone hold times have been emblematic of the university experience for many people. The classroom experience can involve dated teaching materials and technology, as well as indifferent instructors. Being responsive and attentive to student and family needs is required if universities are to do more than simply enroll students. Responsiveness and attentiveness are necessary to engage, retain and graduate all students and especially first-generation and nontraditional students. Answering phones, returning calls, assisting students with managing bureaucracy and showing concern about students is simply good human service, not customer service.

Society as Customer

The fundamental point remains that crafting higher education policy at all levels should be derived from identifying the public -- not the student -- as the customer in higher education. When we clarify the customer, it helps guide decision making toward benefiting society for the long term vs. benefiting individuals for the short term. When faculty members understand they are training students for a societal rather than an institutional benefit, it helps ensure that academic standards are resistant to casual negotiation. Clarifying to faculty members that the customer is the public reduces grade-inflation pressure.

Crafting higher education policy around society operates to protect academic disciplines against fiscal exigencies. It ensures that the consumers of higher education -- the students -- will be competent professionals and engaged citizens. And ultimately, creating competent professionals and engaged citizens, much more than saving money, improves the quality of civic life for everyone.

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