As a grad student, I often joked with people about how we must cater to the needs of undergrads. Their parents were paying big bucks, and who would want their little snowflake to feel the pangs of disappointment? It wasn’t until my first year as an assistant professor that I heard the term “customer service” applied to students in a serious, non-satirical manner.
I was shocked. You mean faculty treating students as customers is an actual thing? Yes, it is. The customer service approach in academia posits that students are similar to customers, and that faculty, staff, and administrators supply students with a service, which is education (Emery, Kramer, & Tian, 2001). This view has been debated since the 1950s but came to prominence in the 1990s (van Andel, Pimentel Bótas, & Huisman, 2012).
Arguments for Treating Students as Customers
Proponents argue that viewing students as customers isn’t just a whimsical idea but a necessity (Maguad, 2007). For an institution to flourish, it must have students who pay tuition and fees. Institutions attract students by offering superior “goods or services” compared to other institutions. To remain competitive, institutions must brand themselves as attractive to their target audience of potential students (Mark, 2013). Institutions that struggle most likely offer a poorer quality product compared to competitors.
Proponents of the student-customer paradigm argue that students have multiple roles—not just customers (Maguad, 2007). For example, students are commonly solicited for input when designing or redesigning course requirements and curriculum. In this instance, they are co-workers in addition to customers. Faculty and staff, therefore, should take into account students’ multiple roles when interacting with students. Proponents also argue that students are not passive consumers of the educational process. Rather, students exert a sense of empowerment over their commitment to the learning process and do so by making decisions based upon their interests and educational/professional needs (van Andel et al., 2012).
Arguments against Treating Students as Customers
At the coursework level, the customer service model causes an intensely negative reaction among some faculty. A few negative implications are that students shop around for the most favorable courses (easy As, entertaining lectures, and minimal work), students will attempt to negotiate their grades, and students must pass their courses, because they are paying customers.
Opponents of the customer-student paradigm argue that viewing students as consumers can lead to a general sense of academic entitlement (Singleton-Jackson, Jackson, & Reinhardt, 2010; Wueste & Fishman, 2010). Academic entitlement is the belief that students are owed desirable educational outcomes regardless of actual effort. This attitude among students could potentially undermine the educational process and hamper attempts to encourage creativity and critical thinking (Schaefer, Barta, Whitley, & Stogsdill, 2013). Opponents argue that faculty should view students as professional practitioners view their clients, whereby cooperative engagement is necessary to bring about positive educational outcomes.
Assessing Both Sides
Although viewing students as consumers of the educational process makes sense, the backlash from this paradigm is understandable. Interestingly, both sides seem to use the argument of student reciprocity and changing business practices to support their claims (e.g., van Andel et al., 2012; Wueste & Fishman, 2010). Current business practices typically do not treat customers as passive consumers who need to be satisfied at all costs. According to services-marketing theory, customers should be trained in appropriate attitudes and behaviors in order to fully participate in their role as customers (Kotze & du Plessis, 2003). Institutions and educators, however, should beware of the natural consequence of treating students as customers—namely academic entitlement. Part of the socialization process should be to change students’ beliefs about their roles as students/customers. Higher education should also encourage students to fully exert effort and productivity in order to achieve desirable educational outcomes.