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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