Future of Student Consumerism in Higher Education

In today’s post, I want to share an excerpt of a chapter I contributed to Knapp and Siegel’s The Business of Higher Education.  The chapter explores student consumerism in higher education, which I consider one of the most important trends influencing our institutions.  The excerpt suggests steps for universities considering how to deal with consumerism.

Photo credit: Tax Credits.

The climate within higher education for nearly twenty years largely relied on the principle of a free market for recruiting students. With the cyclical rise and fall of state appropriations and other sources of funding, institutions turned to the flexibility of tuition revenue to better control their futures. The prevalent ideology of market deregulation and an aversion to tax increases in conservative state houses across the country facilitated the growth of competition between colleges and universities. With the preoccupation of campus leaders on tuition, student consumers gained a powerful position within the market. Institutional responses to recruit, retain, and satisfy students influenced the activities and decision-making processes. Faculty dominance waned as professional administrative ranks swelled to meet growing student demands. The impact of this new administrative ascendency changes the internal dynamics of shared governance and resource allocation strategies.

The question before higher education fundamentally is one of balance. The concerns of administrators for securing resources, the role of faculty in making academic decisions, and the desires of student consumers form the basic components of the future of postsecondary education. Understanding how to weigh each of these elements becomes the challenge in moving beyond the illogical decision-making typified by the arms race to simply satisfy consumers. In the absence of governmental intervention through a limited system of regulation, it is difficult to foresee any substantial movement within the student marketplace to curb efforts to meet consumer demands in spite of the potential damage to the historical purposes of higher education.

Given the existing environmental context and pressures facing colleges and universities, the goal of these suggestions is to provide areas where institutional leaders can better achieve balance in decision-making. The first recommendation encourages internal stakeholders to respect the goals and intent of shared governance within higher education. Participating faculty should move with deliberate haste recognizing the tremendous pressures faced by administrators. As an example, the traditional shutdown of faculty governance structures during the summer hinders involvement in decisions that require rapid resolution. External influences push for rapid change that requires action that may not wait until faculty return to campus in August. Faculty committees exist to influence and contribute to institutional decision-making despite occasional uses to delay and derail administrative initiatives. Likewise, campus administrators ought to appreciate the goals and responsibility placed on faculty. Priorities such as protecting academic integrity and knowledge generation processes represent core areas that faculty rightfully safeguard. Administrators demonstrate a support for shared governance by presenting information regularly and asking for input before an issue escalates into a time-sensitive crisis. Forthrightly addressing pressures from student consumers in a spirit of appreciation for the unique responsibilities and mutual objectives of each group establishes a foundation for institutional success.

In addition to renewed support of shared governance, campus leaders can look for a nexus between institutional goals and those of consumers. Finding areas where consumer demands improve the teaching, research, and service functions presents an opportunity to advance larger priorities. Attracting consumers through improved teaching, state-of-the-art facilities, and small class sizes concurrently supports the academic mission. As discussed throughout this chapter, the escalation of consumerism challenges how higher education operates and warrants close scrutiny to protect core values. Establishing boundaries, which will vary between institutions, enables administrators and faculty to work on leveraging potential benefits from consumerism.

The key to thriving in this environment rests in the ability to understand the institution’s mission and fundamental values. Agreement on mission provides the trust for various stakeholders to work together to advance the institution. In this context, a decision to start a new program or create a new student service exists within a larger, established social contract between faculty, administrators, and students. The revenues generated from meeting consumer desires represent an opportunity to advance core institutional activities and objectives. In the long run, success will largely result from our ability to self-regulate and continue to advance the traditional purposes of higher education.