Monday, March 16, 2009

Students Are/are not Customers - a Dialogue

“Students are not customers.” If I had a dollar for every time I hear that I would not have to work. Might even be able to fund the bailout. But because I hear that phrase so often, there is a lot of work for me with colleges concerned about their retention of students.

I was working with a college that was experiencing 42% attrition. FORTY-TWO PERCENT!!! Each year it loses 42% of its student body. Not good any time but now could be a financial disaster. While I was discussing academic customer service, I referred to students as customers. A faculty member jumped to his feet and yelled out the statement. “Students are not customers.” There was some applause.

“Okay. If they are not customers or clients of the college, what are they?” I asked.

The professor thought for a moment and retorted that “they are students.”

“Ahhh. Then students are students?” That brought my philosophy courses into play. “Isn’t that an absolute tautology? Defining a term by the term? If so, isn’t that also a logical error that does not define what students are.”

So I asked for a better definition.

“Students are people who come to the university to learn from us.”

“Okay. That’s a good start. Are there any conditions placed on them to be able to do so?”

“Yes. We must be accepted to the university first.”

“Do they then get to come here for free?”

“Paying does not make them customers. Their tuition does not even pay for half of the actual costs.”

“Just because they may not pay all the cost does not take away the fact that they are spending money for something even if they don’t pay for all of it. They…”

“They pay some money to gain an education. They are here to learn. That makes them students not customers” another audience member chimed in.

“So your contention is they are paying for an education and that is the definition of a student not a customer?”

“Yes. Purpose controls the interaction not the exchange of dollars. The why of their coming to college; not the how. Since they come to college to learn, they are students not customers.”

“So if they come to learn they are students?”


“But is that really why they come to college? To learn as an end in itself? I don’t think so. And I don’t think that’s why you went to college either. Sure, for you learning was a part of it but I think there was another reason too.”

“That’s ridiculous. I came to college to study literature because I love literature and not for any other reason.”

“Nah. That’s not wholly true and you know it. Sure you came to study lit, be an English major just like I did. But you could have done that anywhere without having to do it in a classroom. Nothing stopped you from reading all you wanted outside of college. But you went to college because you wanted to not just study literature; you wanted to get a job so you could do so. You came to college to become a faculty member and that’s a job. You went to college to get a job.”

“The goal of becoming a faculty member was secondary. I do that just so I can have time to study literature. If I didn’t have to teach, I would be even happier.”

“Let’s not go there because you can only say that because you have as job and likely because you’re tenured. If you didn’t have a job you wouldn’t have the time or luxury to say you don’t even want one. “

“That’s insulting.”

“Perhaps and if it is I apologize but it is true. Just ask an adjunct or unemployed PhD looking for a job. They’ll tell you that is about a position, a salary. That’s what they are after. I mean haven’t we all heard “I went to college for ten years and I can’t get a job.” Not, “I went to college for ten years and thrilled I have all the time I want to just enjoy what I learned. Thank goodness I did not get those degrees so I could try to get a teaching position.

And the truth is that you went to college as did all or us including me to become something. For us it was a faculty member and we did this not just once but three times to get the BA,MA and PhD in our case. And when you were in school, you took courses because you had to not because you wanted to learn some of that required stuff. And while you were a student, you grumbled too as do our current students about the costs and whether or not you were getting your money’s worth or were just wasting time with a third year of Spanish, a calculus or humanities course perhaps. You thought you’d be better off if you could take more courses in your major.

If we could we chose grad school by where we had the best chance to study with someone well known so we could invest our time and money to learn and get a job. But if that prof was at Podunck U we would have found someone else because people do not get jobs from Podunck. Not good ones at least. Because grad school needs to pay off. Needs to give us a good return on our investment like a tenure-track position in a good school.

Is there anyone here who isn't identifying with any of this? Who didn’t care whether or not college led to a job? And before you jump up and claim ME, know that my follow-up question is “Okay, then will you give up your job and all that comes with it so you can just go and study and learn for the love of it? And if you say yes, I will have a resignation letter for you to sign and we’ll hand it in together so you can live your dream.”

Dramatic grumbling from some followed. Those who agreed with me did not move for they knew that academic vengeance can be quite painful.

I continued. “And that is a consumerism attitude. I pay this to gain that. The pay may be money, time, hoop jumping or whatever but it as an exchange of value for a potential value in the case of college. And people who engage in that consumerist action are customers and clients no matter if you call them students or something else.

We did it. Others before us did it and our current students do it and that makes them customers of our services. The only ones who did not have to do it were the ones wealthy enough to be able to not worry about a job or an income and I am not seeing many of them here.

Or in your college either.

So let’s just accept the reality and do all we can to treat our customer appropriately. Doesn’t mean pander to them at all either. It means helping them to their goals such as learning and training they will need to graduate get a job, become a productive person and citizen. That’s finally what they pay us for after all. That’s why they submit to the required courses. Because they have to as a vocational necessity and because they may prepare them to succeed better in career and life.

And if along the way, they like us, gain a good, disciplined broad education – so much the better for them. They also want respect, recognition and to feel valued and that is also what every customer wants in every service or business.”

I sort of felt a bit badly because I knew there were many faculty who agreed with me but did not feel they could make any public agreement. I guess I was just too tired of some sanctimonious folk who think that if they recognize their students as anything but students, those who they can have power over, they might have to treat them better and even give a damn about them.

I do realize most faculty are very decent, caring professionals but they need to let their colleagues who toss off “jokes” like “it is so nice here without them (students)” they are making them all look badly.


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