Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Who's the Customer?

At NACCE I briefly got into a colloquy with a very young, very self-assured investor who asserted confidently that “young people” don’t care a whit about institutions or tradition, and that they will desert public higher ed en masse as soon as a better deal comes along, which is already happening.  I suggested that what he called “young people” in fact reflected an elite, well-resourced slice of young people, and that hollowing out more universalist institutions on their whim would amount to abandoning everybody else.  I still believe that, but I think I’m honing in on why we kept talking past each other.

He was looking at the student as the customer.  From his perspective, it’s perfectly obvious that online options will do to colleges what Amazon did to Borders.  And if you assume unproblematically that “the customer” in higher education resembles the customer in book sales, then that perspective makes sense.  But it isn’t as simple as that.

Who is the community college’s customer?

- Students, obviously.

- Parents/Families.  Particularly for young students and first-generation students, college choice -- whether to go at all, and where -- is often a family decision.  This is generally not true for, say, individual book purchase decisions.

- Employers.  They see students as products, and themselves as customers.  The concept of “workforce development” is built on the assumption that colleges produce workers.

- Four-year colleges.  As with employers, they see our students as products, and they judge our success by the success of our transfers at their schools.  

- The state (and sometimes county).  He who pays the piper calls the tune.  While it’s true that state/county funding as a percentage of college operating budgets is on a long-term and seemingly permanent decline, it’s still significant enough that the state sees community colleges as instruments for achieving broader policy goals.  Nobody judges Amazon by the racial demographics of its customers, but community colleges are judged in part by how well they achieve the goal of eliminating racial gaps.  Community colleges are supposed to produce employable graduates with a broad set of skills, as well as educated citizens capable of taking meaningful part in our politics.  

- The Feds. While we don’t get direct operating appropriations from the federal government -- not that anybody does this week -- the feds are the single largest source of financial aid for students.  Pell grants, subsidized loans, veterans’ benefits, and the rest matter tremendously, though each comes with its own set of strings.  Those strings matter for what we can offer.  (No Pell in summer!  Wait, there is!  No, there isn’t!)  Community colleges also frequently participate in a host of institutional grant programs -- Title III, Title V, NSF, DOL/TAA, NIH, etc. -- that bring criteria, assessments, and imperatives of their own.

- The service area.  Higher education is largely a reputational industry.  That’s much less true for, say, retail.  If I want the new Gladwell book, I can buy it from any one of a bevy of retailers.  I’ll judge the performance on price, speed of delivery (if applicable), and hassle.  If I decide that I don’t much like the book, my disappointment is aimed at the author, not at the bookseller.  

Judging the likely quality of a college education in advance is a much more complicated and problematic task.  In practice, most people rely on reputation.  Maintaining visibility and a positive reputation in the community is crucial.  In the context of a community college, alumni tend to stay relatively local, so alumni relations and community relations overlap significantly.

This list is far from exhaustive.  Add local nonprofits, K-12 districts, sports fans, unions, and whomever else you like.  It’s all true.

My confident young interlocutor seemed to think me obtuse for not recognizing that sweeping away every category of customer other than students would allow for a much more streamlined and efficient operation.  

Yes, it would.  Satisfying multiple masters, each with different and often conflicting agendas, is harder than focusing on just one.  But wishing politics away won’t get the job done.  If we move into the brave new world of technology-enhanced autodidacts, what happens when we notice tremendous social gaps in who benefits?  What happens when some can’t afford it, and are permanently shut out?  What happens when some brave new provider does a lousy job?  

I don’t raise this in the spirit of defeatism or resignation, but in recognition of Hegel’s dictum that freedom is the insight into necessity.  If we’re going to adapt and improve -- which we need to do -- we have to recognize the various needs out there.  We may need to make some choices among them, but that requires acknowledging that those choices exist.  And any new player of significant size will have to deal with many of the exact same issues.

Did you ask if he got an on-line degree, and where he got his seed money to start investing?

I hope he doesn't have his money in one enterprise whose reputation takes a hit every time one of its students applies to a nearby university and gets sent to our CC to fill in some huge gaps. That word must get around eventually.
Not to mention that someone with that kind of social capital already knows something about history, maybe art, math, etc. And most of the students who enroll in public universities (2-year or 4-year) come to us without that social capital and desperately need general education courses. They need the faculty to help them understand what's important and what they should learn.

There's a reason we don't let 17-year olds write curriculum.
Hmm, that explains why no one wants to go to Harvard.

One can define the term “customer” as any entity that you need to keep happy in order to remain in business. Consequently, another entity that needs to be considered as a “customer” is the school’s accrediting agency. If your school loses its accreditation, it will be quickly thrown out of business. So you need to keep your accreditor happy and you need to jump through any and all of the hoops that they throw in front of you.

A lot of businesses go under because they lose track of who their customer actually is, and forget that their primary mission should be to please their customers on a daily basis. At a meeting, I asked the president of our proprietary art school who he thought that our customer was. He answered that the students are a customer, as are potential employers of our students.

There is a danger in a school or college presuming that their students are their most important customer. Under such a model, a college or university becomes indistinguishable from a typical for-profit corporation—cutting costs and increasing the revenue stream become more important than the education of the next generation of citizens, which is supposedly the reason why the school is there in the first place. Under such a corporate-style model, academic programs become franchises, students become consumers, donors become investors, the fruits of research become proprietary and secret, faculty members become employees, courses become business products, and other peer institutions become competitors. Pressures on university administrations to cut labor costs has led to an increasing “adjunctification” of the faculty—with each passing year, more and more of the classroom teaching is performed by part-time, poorly-paid workers who get no benefits, who have no job security and who have little prospect of ever getting full-time employment. In the pursuit of lower costs, college and university administrators have outsourced many university functions and jobs, ranging from groundskeeping and janitorial serves, all the way to bookstores and food services. Some university administrators are toying with outsourcing even the education function itself, investing heavily in online educational systems and packages in the hope that costs will be reduced even further. The constant pressure to cut costs has led to stagnant wages for faculty, a steady erosion of benefits, and poverty-level wages for most university workers.

The traditional openness and transparency of university educational and research initiatives is replaced by an environment of secrecy and exclusivity. New initiatives are created with sexy “brand names” designed primarily to attract wealthy donors rather than to meet perceived educational needs. Under such a corporate-style system, there is an increasing tendency for university and college administrators to confuse means and ends—academic activity becomes a means to raise money rather than the other way around.

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