Students Are Not Customers (Revisited)

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

Chapter 4 of Our Higher Calling is entitled "Students Are Not Customers." During a recent seminar, a group of graduate students joined with representatives from two distinguished think tanks to unpack that assertion. In the process, they helped develop a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between students and the university as an entity. 
At the beginning of the discussion, the argument was made that, of course, students are customers.  Ignoring them as such and their motivations for attending college is foolhardy and schools that do so will place themselves at great risk. The counter-argument was also asserted that traditionally, the customer is always right. That is not, however, the relationship college students have with their professors or their institutions.
One of our guests, Jenna Robinson, President of the Martin Center for Academic Renewal (link) suggested a middle ground.  She suggested that students are customers during the application process.  They are free to explore all of the alternatives, develop a list of schools that are right for them, apply to the schools that meet their criteria and, in many cases, negotiate a package of discounts and financial aid that allow them to attend.  This process is not terribly different from buying a car or renting an apartment; it certainly fits the paradigm of the student as a customer.

However, once the student is accepted to a school, the relationship changes.  Robinson suggested that relationships can take one of two forms based on a framework developed by Edmund Burke. One is that of delegate where the institution carries out the wishes of the student. The other is that of trustee where decision-making is entrusted to the institution. Robinson opts for the latter, suggesting that upon admission the college becomes a trustee making a series of decisions on curriculum, campus climate, safety, and many others all of which reflect the mission and values of the institution. Customers/students simultaneously decide whether the mission and values of the institution are ones they embrace. Once admitted, they entrust the institution and its faculty to create a structure that ultimately results in a worthwhile college education.


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