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Higher Ed. Where Consumers Are Also Students.

August 13, 2009



This is Part Three of a series called, The Wonderful and Wacky World of Marketing Higher Education.

What a special time of year this is on college campuses nationwide. Student leaders and fall student athletes have returned to campus. The fall term draws near. While summer on college campuses is a welcome break after a long year, by the time August arrives, I’ve always been ready for our students to return. Or, should I say, our consumers? It’s actually both.

In higher education, we have more than just consumers. Importantly and beautifully, we also have students. It is a difference with a distinction–a distinction that produces student learning, but ends up causing some confusion on our campuses.

Our consumers enter college life as students who are expecting to be intensely challenged. The role of colleges and universities is to push these students to think critically and act responsibly, to grow up and think beyond themselves, to listen to different viewpoints, to think through the issues of our world, to find their voice, to excel. Not exactly “the customer is always right” stuff.

In this academic process, students have a power role on campus as they are (should be) the most important part of the core product of the university: student learning.

Students are also involved in education outside of the classroom where they hopefully mature and leave the university as responsible adults and citizens as a result of the community in which they lived and learned. Martin Luther King said, “the function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically…intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education.”

And true education is vital for society. As Robert Franklin, president of Morehouse College, said on CNN talking about teaching students scripts for success in life, “if the village elders don’t do it, the village idiots will.”

In the case of higher education, the village elders are largely interested and caring professors and student affairs mentors who challenge students to get it right, think it through again, be responsible, so on and so forth. (I’ll let you figure out who the village idiots are.)

But should our consumers be treated like students by everyone on our campus? This is where it gets confusing for our staff.

While it is clear that students have signed up to be challenged by professors and student affairs mentors, they haven’t signed up for others to do the same. Unfortunately, each of our campuses have certain staff who challenge their customers to be more responsible as if their customers are their students and their office is their classroom. These staff members perceive their customers as being just students, who unfortunately are near the bottom of the food chain when they are outside the classroom.

Think about your most customer service challenged departments on campus. While these departments employ many wonderfully committed individuals, a few don’t even think of students as customers. So, with attitude, they challenge them to grow up and be responsible. And why not? Students are immature. They don’t read instructions. They want exceptions. They don’t meet deadlines. They violate our rules. Etc, etc., etc.

In addition to the negative effect on student retention, this behavior becomes a problem as the university desires a long-term relationship with its customers. When we call them, some of our alumni think, “Now you care? What’s changed? Oh, you want a donation from me now?”

In our wonderful and wacky world of higher education, customers are also students, and students are also customers. As leaders in marketing higher education, one of our many roles is to help our university community realize the difference between the two.

Previously in this series:

Marketing Used to be a Dirty Word. Now It’s a Necessary Evil.

Shared Governance. Management is Not Strictly Top-Down.

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