This morning I read an article arguing that college students are not customers, primarily founded in the reality that the student is not, nor does not always expect to be, right. Sure, sometimes this may be hard to believe as you interact with today’s college student, but on the whole, if you asked them whether they are always right the answer would almost always be no.
In principle, I agree with this article. Students shouldn’t be seen as customers. But from my experiences at various institutions, I can’t say that they are always being treated this way, especially in Student Affairs. My last institution offered laundry and water services in the residence halls. We had a Clinique counter in our bookstore. Students were bribed with iPads to attend the institution in the first place. And to some extent, this makes sense. Universities need students to choose to come there in order to continue to function. Sure, classes and professors are incredibly important to the college experience, but most 18-year-olds are unlikely to predict a huge difference in their experience in Physics 101 based on whether a highly decorated astrophysicist is teaching or that professor’s first-year graduate student TA is teaching.
So, much of this ‘customer’ attitude lands on Student Affairs, where student experience is among the primary goals (though this is arguably not where it should be). And it has implications: students feel entitled, they fail to learn independence and life skills (which is arguably what Student Affairs should be facilitating), and they find themselves leaving the college bubble not nearly as prepared as they thought they were. This varies across our functional areas, with some more focused on providing services and others with greater freedom (read: no need to be revenue generating) to educate.
In my office, we work almost entirely with volunteers, which puts this customer dynamic in the spotlight regularly. Sometimes, our volunteers aren’t doing a very good job. But they are volunteers; how can you ‘fire’ a volunteer? Typically, we don’t. We try to work with these students to improve, to identify what is hindering their ability to fulfill their responsibilities, to help them learn and be better in the future. On occasion, we try to coach them into quitting, usually because they are wildly over committed and not invested enough to learn from the experience if they continue. These conversations are meant to be developmental, and given their non-paid status in an educational institution, this is a relatively agreed upon approach to being a good Student Affairs professional.
This semester I did have to outright ‘fire’ a volunteer. She had been working with one of our local schools and we had had nothing but problems with her behavior. The school staff identified her by name as someone who was negatively impacting their environment and other volunteers. The conversation she and I had about this situation was particularly indicative that somewhere along the way, she had come to view herself as a customer. She explained that there was no way that she could have caused these problems, threatened to convince all her friends to leave the program (yes, like she was going to write a scathing Yelp review), and approached the entire conversation as though I was there to remedy all the wrongs that had been done to her. This attitude made it much harder for me to help her understand the problem, much less any mechanisms to fix it. While she was dismissive of my attempts to help due to her dissatisfaction with how she’d been treated, I can only hope that she will one day reflect enough on the experience to learn something from it.
My question is this: how did this ‘student as customer’ situation come to be? And is it trickling down to the K-12 schools too? For many years, as a nation, we have had a completely different view on K-12 education. Mediocre, disengaging education was (and in many cases still is) justified with battle cries of “that’s how it was in my day” or “I had to struggle through it, so can you”. But more and more, you hear stories about this shifting – how teachers have little autonomy to teach because of parents arguing that they know best. That poor grades and loss of privileges are being argued against and eliminated despite the best judgment of the instructor in the classroom. I would wager that these instances happen far more in middle and high SES schools, where parents have the social capital to make these arguments, but it’s an interesting potential trend.
Students are learners, and by the very essence of that identity, they do not know everything, much less are they always right. Most students know this. They would not choose to engage in an educational experience if they honestly believed they knew everything or could not be wrong. Most of them wish to learn and improve, it’s our job to help them do so, despite pressures to win their dollars. Ultimately, we will win more of them by challenging them to be better, smarter humans.