Students Are Consumers. It’s Time to Treat Them That Way.

By Carol D'Amico

Strada Education Network Executive Vice President, National Engagement and Philanthropy

This post was first published by Real Clear Education on July 17, 2018.

Your opinion matters. Tell us about your shopping experience. No sooner do we pay for coffee or exit an Apple Store, than we are inundated with questionnaires, surveys, or flash polls that solicit our views as consumers.

The ubiquity of mobile computing enables retailers to curate products that pique our interest and experiences that satiate our shifting preferences and behaviors. But consumer data is also helping hospitals understand why certain patients fail to follow post-discharge instructions, and whether patients’ fears might cause them to avoid life-saving procedures.

In contrast, the perspectives of education consumers have been all but ignored by most of our nation’s colleges and universities. Institutions have, in turn, been caught flat-footed by the rise of adult learners, who have different needs and expectations than traditional students. If community colleges were more attuned to the needs of student and employer stakeholders, they might have invented “coding bootcamp” ahead of educational upstarts like General Assembly.

The challenge stems, in part, from higher education’s organization around inputs over outputs. And it is, perhaps, rooted in higher education’s aversion to using the term “consumer” altogether. We measure the value and quality of an institution through accreditation processes that consider factors like the size of its library, rather than the satisfaction of its graduates. College rankings equate instructional quality with faculty credentials, rather than student outcomes.

But students and would-be graduates are, in fact, consumers. They compare options and evaluate the return on potential investments. They are brand-conscious. They are looking to an increasingly diverse array of providers to fulfill their interests and aspirations. This means that even our most venerable institutions now face competition for consumers — and for public investment.

Fortunately, there are signs that higher education’s consumer aversion may soon be shifting. Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell’s now famous transformation of the university’s football field into a farm is emblematic of a growing willingness to reimagine college for entirely new demands — and learners.

Three years ago, we embarked on an ambitious effort to collect perspectives on education from a wide array of Americans: from those with little or no exposure to education after high school all the way to those with post-graduate experiences. We aimed to learn what, if anything, made postsecondary experiences valuable by interviewing students who earned degrees and credentials, as well as those who started college but did not finish. To date, we’ve talked with some 350 Americans a day. That’s 10,000 a month and 250,000 a year.

From these interviews a new narrative is emerging. Consumers are telling us that outcomes matter more than inputs. At a time when policymakers and students alike are questioning their return on postsecondary investments, consumers are telling us that career relevance — more so than rankings — shapes their perception of value.

In some ways, the power of relevance should not be surprising. Fifty-eight percent of those who attend college do so with the goal of obtaining a job or career outcome. No other reason comes close. In a survey of college freshman, 85 percent indicated they are pursuing higher education to obtain a good job. However, less than 30 percent report having that job upon graduation, and, despite the overwhelming emphasis on relevance, only 26 percent of working Americans with college experience strongly agree that their education is relevant to their work and daily life.

Against that backdrop, education consumers might be surprised to learn that the higher education establishment has, at times, been resistant to the concept of “relevance.” Some academics and institutions worry that the “vocationalization” of higher ed might devalue the liberal arts. But a growing body of evidence suggests that rigor and relevance may not be at odds, after all. President Sorrell has urged a new conversation focused on “reality, rather than work-based education.”

Columnist George Anders wrote an entire book on the “surprising power of a (useless) liberal arts education” to lead students to cutting-edge jobs.

Regardless of one’s interpretation, the magnitude of these data presents a clear call to action. Institutions of higher education will have to think differently about quality and value and to align their approach to education with the needs and desires of the consumers they exist to serve. As it is, there is a disconnect between what consumers want and expect from postsecondary education and what they are receiving.

Carol D’Amico served in the U.S. Department of Education as assistant secretary for adult and vocational education, and as executive vice president and chancellor of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. She now serves as Executive Vice President for Mission Advancement and Philanthropy with Strada Education Network.