Students are not customers! Higher education is not a business! I have been hearing these outcries a lot recently.

I agree. Students aren’t customers. They’re learners, who have needs that education providers in whatever form, stage or modality must meet. And I do mean “must:” It’s an ethical obligation that follows from the practice. What are those needs? Here are my top six.

Learners at all stages from introduction through mastery need to be supported in their learning. They deserve guides and coaches who have the students’ best interests at the center of their practice. There must be fair policies. Teachers must set high standards and clear expectations. They need to provide reliable feedback, whether in person or at a distance or via some other modality. The student has to be able to trust that they will make progress if they follow the path, practice faithfully and carry out all the rest of the requirements to the expected standard. These things are true whether the student is learning in grade school, as a first-year college student, as a graduate student, as a practicing professional or as a learner in some endeavor such as karate or piano or any kind of craft.

And just for fun, what’s a customer? A buyer of things or services that a business has for sale. And what do customers need? Here are my top three: the right selection of goods at a fair price. Polite efficient convenient service. A reasonable guarantee policy.

No overlap between students and customers then, right? Well, not so fast. Actually the student-customer interface is a little like a Venn diagram. Remember those from math, or logic? Two or more circles that overlap to some extent, like the MasterCard logo? Students and customers have areas of overlap, as well as their distinctive differences.

If you are running any institution of higher learning, there are some “overlap” things that customers (who are also students) need: the programs they want, efficient registration, a decent class schedule convenient for their lives and a reasonable price. If you’re running a physical location, there are more overlap areas: comfortable classrooms, access to food, parking and safety. If you serve residential students there are more: entertainment, safe residence halls and other services.


And then there’s the really funky part, where what looks like overlap really isn’t, and the ethical obligations of one category bleed over into other parts of the overlapping practice. I suspect this is one source of the outrage that lies behind “Students are not customers!”

We can start to see it when we consider things like how institutions of higher education convince students to enroll. Advertise! Businesses do it all the time. Why not colleges? Send those admissions representatives out on the road just like a sales force, print some glossy brochures, design a few web pages and rake them in. After all, applicants to a college are not yet students at your college.

But they might be. So from the outset they must be treated “as if” they were your students, with their best interests at the center of your practice, and with the help and support they need to make critical life decisions. While colleges have to apply good advertising and marketing principles to recruiting students, they must always behave and communicate in ways appropriate for students, not just customers. Admissions directors live in this interesting conceptual space.

There are other cases where the “customer” designation overlaps with another category with different ethical obligations. Maybe the closest parallel is “patient.” When we submit ourselves for a medical test, an operation or a doctor visit, we expect to be treated according to best practice and with our best interests at the center. We also expect to be treated as a valued customer, with short wait times, accurate billing and all the rest. Forget expectations about the food. Come on, people, we have to be reasonable about the capabilities of the universe.

Another pair is “customer” and “fan.” As a fan, when I go to a Red Sox game, I expect the team to do their very best to play a beautiful, entertaining game and maybe even to win — that’s their ethical obligation after all. (And why we may be outraged about Black Sox scandals or doping.) But I also expect to buy a ticket easily if not cheaply, take reliable transportation, and have a tasty snack and a comfortable seat.

Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at [email protected]

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