Friday, June 14, 2013

The Contract and Student Engagement

this is chapter 4 of the new book Collegiate Customer Service from A to G: Admissions to
Graduation being provided free chapter by chapter here.
Call them students or whatever term or euphemism one wants, the fact is that students are consumers of what the college or university has sold to them and provides. They fit the basic definition of a customer too. A person who exchanges money or something of value for goods and/or services.

Students and their families have been sold a set of promises ranging from a vague mission to better their lives and the world to the usual marketing of “personal attention from a caring faculty and staff with small classes and all the services needed for you to be successful in your studies and future career...”  As a result, students and families pay out thousands, tens of thousands, a hundred thousand dollars to attend the school to receive what they were sold.

This offer of services, acceptance of the offer and exchange of money for the services proffered is the very essence of a contract between two parties. The contract creates a set of obligations upon the service provider (hereinto called the college) to furnish the customer (hereinto called the student) said promised services (attention, small classes, personal attention, caring, problem resolution, instruction, training, tutoring, access to faculty/administrators, assistance, support…).

The customer is obligated to fulfill the requirements of paying tuition and fees. They are also required to follow college policies as might be in a student handbook or course syllabus which are addenda to the contract and create sub-contracts in themselves. And the college is obligated to provide what it promised and sold the student.

If the college does not provide the student all that was promised/sold by the marketing and admissions process to entice the student to attend and pay, the contract as well as the student’s expectations is not met. To date, the result is that the customer becomes angered that the contract has been broken and will normally try to get the services promised or just decide it isn’t worth it and leave.

Dropping out is the traditional response. Though, in our increasingly heated and litigious society, this will likely change.  There will be a student who has paid tens of thousands of dollars to purchase a set of promised and contracted for services but has not received them. He or she will bring a suit against the school to recover costs, time spent as well as future earnings lost. All the student will have to do for example is show the marketing that promised small classes and then the section of X he had to attend in a lecture hall with 250 others. Or promised tutoring by professionals but was unable to get the tutoring or was given a non-professional peer tutor; or went to the faculty member’s office hours and the professor was not there on a number of occasions or simply said he or she did not have time to help and the student subsequently failed the required class.  Considering the increasingly skeptical and even negative attitude of the public toward higher education as discussed in Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety On Cost,Harsher Judgments On How Colleges Are Run by John Immerwahr and Jean Johnson a jury of college student parents would likely find the student’s case that an expansive contract was breached to be compelling.

Moreover, what colleges need to understand is that when the contract is extended through an offer of admissions and the student accepts and pays for that proffer, the question of whether or not the student should be in the college, or is capable of doing well ends. The proffered acceptance is a statement that we have determined that you are capable of doing the work to succeed or we would not have made the offer. To accept a student a school or members of the school’s community believes is not capable of doing the work, “not college material”, “not up to our standards” is to make a false offer and is inherently unethical as well as grossly horrible customer service. That would be as unethical as selling me, an older, 5’6”, 182 pound, out of shape, academic-type a course that would make me a center for an NBA team based on a review of my potential to be an NBA center.

 If a college or university accepts a student, the contract says the school has certified through its admissions process that this is a student who should be capable of graduating from the school. And it also says we will provide all the services we promised to make that happen. Or as Academic Customer Service Principle 7 says “The goal is not necessarily to recruit the very best students but to make the students you recruit the very best they can be.”

The contract also generates a set of human expectations including the sense of trust. Entering into a contract requires the customer to extend trust to the service provider thus providing an engagement between the college and the student. This extends the sense of trust just as an engagement to be wed sets up a strong need for trust in one another. If an event occurs to break or disrupt the faith, a very negative emotional response is the likely result. The engagement is off as in “I quit. I am dropping out of this place.” If there is not a full break, just a major frustration as caused quite often by the campus shuffle, the relationship becomes quite tentative requiring an infusion of good will and attention from the one who broke the engagement, the trust to deliver. This repairing of the damage in service or hospitality normally does not occur so the event just sets the process in place that will lead to the engagement being broken for good. This is also a result of other problems that tell the student he or she is not important or the experience is not worth the further investment of time, money and trust in the school’s word.

But again, the decision to leave the college, university, or community college is not a cool, rational one. It is as emotional as one party to an engagement catching the other lying to him or her, or worse faking interest. So the retention programs that do work are ones that focus on the emotional engagement process that tie the student into the school better. These are ones that generate attachment and a sense that we care to increase the students’ trust so that the engagement will last and the contract be met.

What students want is proof that they're buying into the school and its promise of engagement are real. They want the school to fulfill its promises and especially the one that it will focus on their needs and success and in so doing show real care about them. They want evidence that the school is reaching out to them and not just making them do all the reaching. They want to feel important, cared for and valued. These are all issues that pertain to the human, the emotional dimensions and not to intellectual ones. These are all issues that fall into the realm of academic customer service.

If this article has value for you, you'll want to get a copy of the best-selling book The Power of Retention by clicking here.

N.Raisman & Associates has been providing customer service, retention, enrollment and research training and solutions to colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as to businesses that seek to work with them since 1999. Clients range from small rural schools to major urban universities and corporations. Its services range from campus customer service audits, workshops, training, presentations, institutional studies and surveys to research on customer service and retention. N.Raisman & Associates prides itself on its record of success for its clients and students who are aided through the firm’s services. 

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