Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Academician Heal Thyself

Are most colleges businesses and not just the obviously for-profit ones either? All colleges sell their services (marketing and recruitment),have sales
staff (admissions), bill payable and collections (bursar), service providers (faculty) administrators and staff. They all do their best to provide services that their customers (students) want (electives) or must have (required courses). And they all try to make a profit (fund balance/surplus) or at least not to lose money of at all possible. They have employees and unions. Pay salaries and extend benefits And they do produce products (degrees) and sell services.

Maybe they are businesses; unique businesses but businesses just the same. Businesses like a medical practice perhaps with professionals serving the needs of their patients. Each tries to use professional services providers (doctors/professors) to better the lives of their clients. Each purports to higher missions than making money.  Each make patients/customers/ students pay for services but each is also paid for some of the services by outside groups like insurance and the government for medical practices and local, state and federal government for colleges. Each depends on a core of contracted professionals; doctors for the medical practice and faculty for colleges.

But there are also differences. Whereas medical practices are dedicated to doing all they can to save their customers, colleges seem to be rather indifferent to their customers’ success and longevity. Medical practices try to keep their customers alive and coming to the practice while colleges seem to thrive on having huge swathes of their clientele die off or leave. If a medical practice had a reputation of losing a third of its patients every year, it would be seen as questionably competent; a group to stay away from. Many colleges lose fifty percent of their students with some losing as many as 80% of a class and they are still enrolling future students. A medical practice with such a bad record would get cut off from government funds and close while colleges with terrible retention records often get grants to try and keep them going and failing.

Colleges have a rather strange relationship with their customers. And while we are at it, they are customers. Students exchange money for goods and services and that makes them customers by definition. Call them students if that makes it easier to swallow, call them the college’s clients if that makes one feel better but they are customers.

Colleges spend an inordinate amount of time and money to attract their customers  to get them to buy the college’s offerings, but then do so very little to retain them. They spend around $5460 to obtain every new customer and process him or her into the system but then neglect to capitalize on that investment by ignoring their needs and expectations. As a result, large percentages of their customer base leave the college each semester.

They exert a great deal of energy trying to get potential students to believe that the college cares about them but as soon as the student signs the application check and deposit, they just toss them into the deep end of the college and do all they can to make them sink. They treat all students with the same services as if they all were the same and too often we have found those services are lacking in quality and assistance. In fact, if one looks at how much money a college actually spends in student services needed to retain their customers, it would be shockingly low f there is any money set aside for retention services  at all..

What should be the primary activity of college –educating its students – treats all students as if they were the same learner. The lecture approach for example just sends out information as if all the students learn the same way. Everyone is given the same information and work whether or not his personal needs and learning protocols are receptive to them.  This is certainly different than medicine in which every treatment is personalized to the particular patient. College hands out information as if every patient needed the same medicine whether or not the need exists for that medicine. If a doctor gave out the same prescription to all he or she would be seen as incompetent. Colleges are seen as efficient when the same lecture is given to a class of 500 in an introductory course independent of whether learning actually takes place. 

But doctors work with fewer patients than does a professor lecturing to a class of one or two hundred even as few as 50. Doctors who work a clinic may easily see that many patients in a week and they all get some personal attention. The average professor has three classes of 20 or 60 students total so what is the excuse of not giving each student personal attention to make sure they all succeed? 

When a patient needs extra care, he is often sent to see a professional specialist. In college that might happen in writing when a student is sent to a writing lab but in other areas the student with extra need is often handed off to a peer tutor.  And we wonder why students with extra need fail so then. It is as if we have a patient with a serious problem being sent to a med student for specialized help. Why is that? Because the professor is considered too busy to deal with tutoring in most schools. And the more senior the professor and more renowned in her knowledge the less time she has for the primary purpose of college, making sure students succeed and graduate in many too many cases. 

When one boils it down, a major difference between a medical practice and a college is that in the practice each patient is individually important whereas in a college, a student is not. To “lose a patent” in a medical practice is considered a terrible thing. In college losing a student can just be sign that the college is academically rigorous. In the medical practice, when a patient is lost that often calls for a review of why that patient is gone. In most colleges if a student leaves, no one looks into why he or she left. It just is not that important. “We’ll go and recruit another”. A life may be damaged when a student leaves or flunks out but that is not of much concern to the college. A student life is just not that important.

In a medical practice, the administrators worry about patients who will sue for one reason or other. In college, administrators worry about faculty members complaining about one thing or another. As a result, medical practices do all they can to treat the patient’s ills and personal needs while colleges treat the needs and self-perceived injuries of the faculty more than the students.

Colleges need to become more like medical practices, businesses that focus on the needs of their patients, the customers first and foremost. They need to rethink their priorities and put students first and the services they need to each succeed focus upon what each student needs to succeed. Colleges need to put the student first and provide all the services they need to succeed.

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