university students looking at phones

Why the “student as customer” approach is the growing focus in higher education

  • Many universities are shifting to a ‘student as customer’ approach, viewing students as valuable customers. This shift acknowledges students as active stakeholders in their educational journey, with unique perspectives, aspirations, and needs. 59.4% of students consider their university education as a product they are purchasing.
  • Recognizing students as customers allows universities to tailor their programs, curriculum, and support services to cater to individual learning styles 
  • This approach fosters collaboration, cultivates a sense of ownership, and leads to stronger ties between students and the university community. This shift is essential in meeting the evolving expectations of today’s “digital-first” generation of students and ensuring continuous improvement and innovation in higher education.
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Universities are widely known as institutions responsible for fostering intellectual development and equipping students for their forthcoming careers. However, the landscape of higher education has evolved significantly in recent years. Increased competition among institutions, changing student expectations, and rapid technological advancements have necessitated a profound shift in how universities perceive and engage with their students. Many forward-thinking universities have adopted a customer-centric approach to thrive in this dynamic and competitive environment, recognizing their students as valuable customers. This paradigm shift acknowledges that students are not only recipients of knowledge but also active stakeholders with unique perspectives, aspirations, and needs in the educational journey.

A new perspective: The student as customer

In higher education today, students are more frequently positioned as “commodity purchasers,” and the institutions they attend are seen as “education brokers“. This shift in perspective reflects a broader change in how universities engage with their student bodies. A 2022 study of university students revealed that a staggering 59.4% of respondents considered their university education as a product they were purchasing. This change in perspective has profound implications for how universities operate and interact with their student populations.

Meeting evolving expectations

By embracing the concept of students as customers, universities effectively address the evolving expectations of today’s learners. Unlike the traditional model where students had limited agency, modern students expect a personalized and engaging educational experience. They seek universities that provide not only quality education but also an environment conducive to their growth and well-being.

One of the primary benefits of viewing students as customers is the opportunity to gain valuable insights into their needs and preferences. Just as businesses engage in market research to understand their target customers, universities employ similar techniques to gather student feedback, keep track of current students, and analyze data to better understand the diverse needs of their student body.

This customer-centric approach allows universities to tailor their programs, curriculum, and support services to cater to the specific requirements of their students. By adapting to the individual learning styles and aspirations of students, universities enhance their educational offerings and create a more inclusive, engaging, and supportive service environment.

university student looking at phone - student as customer

Fostering collaboration and partnership

Additionally, recognizing students as customers fosters a culture of collaboration and partnership between universities and their students. Just as businesses build long-term relationships with their customers, universities create meaningful connections with their students. This could entail inviting their input in decision-making processes, putting them in leadership positions, and valuing their perspectives on important topics.

By actively involving students as partners, universities leverage their insights and ideas to drive innovation and improvement across various aspects of the institution. This collaborative approach cultivates a sense of ownership, pride, and loyalty among students, leading to stronger ties between students and the university community.

The digital-first generation

The average age of a typical undergraduate student in the United States is 23 years old. This age is part of Generation Z or Zoomer Generation. Zoomers, known as the “digital-first” generation, grew up on cellphones and iPads, ordering DoorDash and Uber. They expect their needs to be met with the touch of a button. Similarly, students and their parents expect their questions and concerns to be addressed promptly and conveniently, which usually means digitally. In a 2023 survey, the majority of students said that communicating with a school digitally is the most important support factor for prospective students.

Viewing students as customers is not only about retaining current students but also attracting new ones. When students go to visit a campus for the first time, they are looking for the best fit for them. When a campus exceeds expectations in creating a seamless and efficient experience, it leaves a lasting first impression, significantly increasing the likelihood that students will choose that specific school.

Continuous improvement and innovation

When universities recognize students as valued customers, they become more attentive to delivering quality student support services, ensuring student success, and continuously improving their offerings. By soliciting feedback and monitoring student satisfaction, universities are able to identify areas for improvement, address shortcomings, and refine their programs and services.

This customer-centric approach fosters a culture of continuous innovation, ensuring that universities remain adaptable and relevant in a rapidly changing educational landscape. Embracing the student-as-customer approach is not without its complexities and controversies, but it offers a valuable framework for universities to provide personalized, supportive, and engaging educational experiences. By recognizing students as active stakeholders with unique needs, aspirations, and expectations, universities ensure their success and satisfaction, ultimately preparing them for a future filled with possibilities.

As universities continue to navigate the changing higher education landscape, embracing the customer-centric approach may well be the key to their continued relevance and success. It is a step toward creating an educational experience that not only imparts knowledge but also empowers and enriches the lives of students, ensuring they are well-prepared for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Explore our comprehensive whitepaper to delve deeper into how universities harness digital tools to elevate student services and support their dedicated staff members. Click below to access the full document.

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