Taking Care of Business

BIG BROTHER GOES TO COLLEGE

The writing’s on the wall. In the not-too-distant future, the federal government will become a conspicuous presence on college campuses, both virtual and physical.

I’ve been expecting this for a long time. Now that Obamacare is law, it makes perfect sense that the president would turn to higher education reform. After all, the “problems” plaguing the health care and education are strikingly similar: prices are rising rapidly and accessibility is restricted.

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Students as Customers

Survival hinges on the ability to adapt to changes taking place in our environment.  There is no escaping this fundamental reality. Ignoring or denying change doesn’t make it any less real, only more dangerous.

Unlike some biological adaptations, which can take millennia to occur, businesses must adapt quickly and with intention if they are to survive. In times of rapid change, when opportunities are fleeting, organizational resilience becomes a critical survival trait.

Successful adaptation requires that decision makers have sufficient information on which to base their organizational response. In the School of Business and Economics (SOBE), this information comes from several sources, the most important of which is our students. Oops, I mean customers. As customer tastes and preferences change, so, too, do our course offerings. An increased interest in leadership development or social media, for example, calls forth additional courses in those areas.  We understand that our ability to recruit and retain customers will be compromised by our failure to offer the degree options they desire.

Curricular change is only one of several types of adaptation taking place in SOBE. Pedagogical change is another regular feature of our educational landscape. As student learning styles change and new technologies become available, so does the way we teach our classes. Student-centered classrooms have replaced lecture halls, dynamic computer simulations now supplement (and may soon replace) static textbooks, and hands-on experiential learning supplants passive-learning strategies.

End-of-semester course evaluations have long been a staple of higher education, but I’m not sure how useful they are. After all, they gather information from people who have no incentive to provide meaningful feedback since the course is over and they stand to gain nothing from doing so (the real beneficiaries of this process are next semester’s students). Two years ago, SOBE introduced mid-semester evaluations. Now, students completing the evaluations have a personal stake in the outcome and a reason to provide high-quality responses. They’re the ones who benefit from any data-driven mid-course corrections that result from their suggestions. The same instrument is administered at the end of the semester to determine the extent to which student concerns were addressed at mid-semester.  We understand that our ability to recruit and retain customers will be compromised by our failure to deliver content in an effective manner.

Does that mean that students as customers call all the shots? Absolutely not! Not all customer demands can be met … or should be met (the line separating the two can be very fine). Resource constraints may rule out some, while lack of alignment with mission or inconsistency with culture may rule out others. Nonetheless, seeing students as customers does heighten our awareness of the need to strive to be responsive to their needs, both current and emerging.

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The Business of Education

In my previous blog post, I wrote that businesses must continually adapt to changes in
their external environment if they’re going to survive and prosper. Honestly, this strikes
me as such a no-brainer that I’m a bit embarrassed having written it. I can’t imagine that
there are too many people who would find this pronouncement worthy of serious debate.

You may be wondering, though, what this has to do with higher education. After all,
education isn’t a business … or is it? Well, that depends on who you talk to.

Now, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that higher education is a business. After
all, we’re selling a product (an education) for a price (tuition) to customers (students)
who can choose to buy instead from our competition (other academic institutions). We
hire employees (faculty and staff), run a payroll, expend resources to advertise and
promote our product, manage our brand, and maintain physical facilities. Seems pretty
straightforward, no?

The debate, though, is really over the extent to which higher education should be run
like a business. Much of the disagreement derives specifically from the fact that an
important – and highly controversial – implication of the “education as business” model
is that students should be treated as customers. Notions such as “the customer’s always
right” and “consumer sovereignty” are incongruous with the deep seated belief of
many in academe that students are incapable of making sound educational decisions for
themselves. That such decisions have important implications for society as a whole only
strengthens this conviction.

William Keep, dean of the School of Business at the College of New Jersey, argues
eloquently against the “student-as-customer” model
. The 137 comments received by The
Chronicle of Higher Education paint a vivid picture of higher education. Ultimately, the
concern among educators is that adopting the business model will pervert the institutional
mission, degrade the quality of education, and shift the balance of power away from the
faculty.

This debate, in my opinion, is misguided. We’ve been asking — and answering — the
wrong question. Whether or not we should regard students as customers and educational
institutions as businesses is completely irrelevant. Answering these questions in the
negative is tantamount to sticking our collective heads in the sand. I wince whenever I
hear someone use the expression “The Ivory Tower” to describe educational institutions
that are insulated from, and out of touch with, “the real world.”

This is a luxury we cannot afford. Contemporary market realities (the advent of new
technologies, the explosive growth of for-profit institutions, changing demographics, high
levels of indebtedness, and the outpacing of income growth by tuition growth) compel
us to embrace the “student as customer” paradigm if we wish to survive in a market place
that promises to become hypercompetitive.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss how adopting a “student as customer” mindset in the School
of Business and Economics (SOBE) at Lynchburg College has enabled us to improve the
quality of the educational experience our students enjoy.

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Education at a Crossroads

This initial blog opens a conversation on a critical issue in education: What is the best way to prepare students for a future that is increasingly uncertain?

As a teacher of Economics, one of the most important lessons I try to convey to my students is the idea that businesses must continually adapt to changes in their external environment if they’re going to survive and prosper.  Because the pace of change has been accelerating – fueled in part by wave after wave of disruptive technologies – this lesson has never been more important than it is today.

The notion that change requires adaptation is hardly new.  Alvin Toffler, in his 1970 classic, Future Shock, wrote,

“To survive, to avert what we have termed future shock, the individual must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than ever before.  We must search out totally new ways to anchor ourselves, for all the old roots – religion, nation, community, family, or profession – are now shaking under the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust.”

Toffler’s prediction has held up impressively over time, especially in regard to education.  As I look around, I can’t help but be impressed by the inability of our institutions to remain vibrant and productive.  The S&P decision to downgrade U.S. creditworthiness was, more than anything else, an indictment of our political system, a well-aimed, but largely ineffective, attempt to break the partisan gridlock that has paralyzed our government.  The performance of American students has been declining relative to students in other countries, especially in the areas of science, math, and technology, a trend that does not bode well for the American economy.

Institutions of higher learning are also operating in increasingly turbulent waters.  We are, and will continue to be, challenged by changing demographics, new technology-based educational platforms, explosive growth in the for-profit educational sector, the federal government’s increasing propensity to expand its regulatory activities in higher education, and economic and social pressures to restrain tuition increases.  As our environment becoming increasingly hostile, we will have to become infinitely more adaptable – to use Toffler’s phrase – in order to survive.  Ironically, change may be the only constant in our lives.

In future blog posts, I’ll talk about the many ways the School of Business and Economics (SOBE) at Lynchburg College is adapting in order to provide an education that remains relevant in a rapidly changing and increasingly uncertain world.

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