One of several trends pressuring higher education over the last decade has been the emergence of students as “consumers.” No longer a naïve recipient of what universities and colleges choose to offer, the student of today makes careful decisions about which school to attend, how much he or she should pay, what subject to study, etc.
As with the purchase of any other big ticket item — college is now the second most expensive purchase in people’s lives — students now seek out all of the increasingly available information about their decisions and even try to negotiate for a better deal. This upsurge in consumerism has been matched on campuses by administrations which now seek to meet every student need in order to drive customer satisfaction scores. The consequences of viewing students as consumers rather than as an output of their institution have been dramatic.
One response to this dramatic shift has led to an “arms race.” Institutions invest in ever more luxurious and expensive dorms, sports facilities, restaurants — and the list goes on — to attract students. At the same time, they spend more on merit scholarships to maintain their ranking in the “Best College” lists that drive consumer behavior. The result has been about as valuable as the nuclear arms race was during the Cold War; beautiful buildings, but not necessarily better education.
Outside those top institutions, the demands from the emerging consumer have begun to have more positive effects. Pressure to reduce tuition rates (or at least slow the rate of increase) as students explicitly consider the price of their education, as well as pressure to increase transparency in pricing — both mandated and volunteered — have been one beneficial result. Consumers also want easier access to their education at a time and place of their choosing, and so institutions now teach classes in more convenient locations, such as office buildings, and at more convenient times, such as after work hours. In addition, they have adopted technology to deliver an anywhere, anytime, any device education.
But perhaps the most important impact of students becoming consumers has been the explicit linking of education to jobs (not even careers, but jobs). In the past, students might have pursued their favorite high school subject in college, secure in the knowledge the degree itself would guarantee a job. Today, they carefully choose a major or an education tightly linked to a high-paying job upon graduation. It is this behavior which partly accounts for the shift in educational enrollments away from the traditional liberal arts curriculum and towards professional subjects and certification.
In this new consumer world, it is the for-profits that have, until recently, been most successful. Explicitly established with a customer-centric mentality, they have been at the forefront of changes traditional institutions have not been willing or able to embrace. However, even staid higher education is now being forced to respond. One way forward is to utilize MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) as a way to reduce cost and improve access, but they offer little more than the modern version of a glorified textbook.
More valuable is the acknowledgement by community colleges and their brethren that, for many consumers, the purpose of education is to improve their employment opportunities. Indeed, it is critical such institutions recognize their other, equally important consumer: employers. Those who recognize this — such as American Public University, which has an exclusive agreement to educate Wal-Mart employees — will do well. This shift in perspective requires institutions to know their local employers, understand their needs and cooperate with them in providing education that will end the current mismatch in the United States between the unemployed and job vacancies.
While elite institutions might be able to ignore consumerism, the majority of higher education needs to respond to the needs of both sets of their consumers, students and employers.
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