NEXT WEEK, Part 2:
How this paradigm plays out in other mission-driven organizations.
Every organization needs to understand how its processes function, but in the world of nonprofits and other mission-driven organizations it can be difficult to maintain perspective on how that works exactly. What are the most important pieces of the operation, and how do they perform together? How do you maintain transactional relationships while fulfilling a transformational mission? Developments in nonprofit higher education in the US may offer insight.
For decades now, nonprofit and public higher education has endured an ongoing paradigm shift that reimagines students as customers. This shift ostensibly offers some considerable improvements over older models that assumed college to be primarily a meritocracy, such as a focus on providing students more access to college services to help assure their success. In practice, though, it has tended to displace the focus on academic matters in favor of concerns about student satisfaction, with decidedly mixed results. It also has contributed to more intensive attention to college marketing and pricing, which in turn contributes to a trend of students making initial college selections or even transferring from school to school in search of the best deals and not necessarily the best fit.
While finances are critically important, of course, and have always played a role in the choice of college or whether to go to college at all, decisions based solely or largely on fiscal anxiety seldom benefit students in the long run. Nonetheless, the conceptualization of college has gone from an overemphasis on academia as a transformational meritocracy to a predominantly transactional model.
Worse still, culturally and politically, this new model has recast higher ed primarily as being a benefit to individual college students rather than as a collective good, a perspective that is reflected in US education policy. From the individual student standpoint, college pricing and costs (which are discrete considerations) have risen precipitously as government subsidies dwindle. Furthermore, this shift has wrought an epistemological crisis that arguably can be seen playing out in our politics today where speculation and fabrication hold nearly the same status as a fact-based understanding of reality. The new perception is that college no longer exists primarily to make you better informed and even smarter. College is just there to get you a better job.
Meanwhile, simply going back to the old model of higher ed as a meritocracy for the select is not a desirable option either. That system tended to treat students almost as interchangeable or even disposable commodities. The individual student’s success mattered little to an apparatus that basked in its own sense of inherent value and entitlement and touted a supposed transcendental potentiality. Under those assumptions, if you struggled as a student, you deserved to struggle. The system itself could not be at fault or offer relief. Meanwhile and in sharp contrast, the scions of the privileged class were treated as though their parentage and social stratum were merit enough to for them to succeed no matter how inept they actually were. We can see this assumption still playing out among the most elite institutions.
Therefore, we need a new paradigm. What if, as Yan Dominic Searcy, a dean at California State University, Northridge, has proposed, rather than customers or end purchasers, the students were regarded as the consumers of what the college offers? In this formulation, the student is not involved in a purely business transaction but is simply an ancillary beneficiary of a transaction that the college conducts with its real customer: society itself. While the student may still (or not) contribute tuition, the people—usually via the government—significantly funds and benefits from the individual student’s education and its contribution to the growth of an educated populace. This public funding is clearest in public higher ed, but even private nonprofit institutions do and have long received a variety of both direct and indirect government and charitable subsidies.
For clarity on the distinction between a consumer and a customer, you can do a simple Google search for the terms. Shockingly, dig a little deeper and you may find that there are many discussions in higher ed literature, including peer-reviewed research papers, that seem to use the terms interchangeably, which hampers full understanding of the matter within higher ed. This seems particularly the case with UK studies for some reason.
A simple way of thinking about this distinction is to consider a gift. If I purchase a mug to give to you, I am the customer (the purchaser), and you are the consumer (the end user). If I keep the mug for myself, I am both the customer and the consumer.
Think of all the cheesy gift shops you have ever seen, particularly in tourist areas. Many of these are filled with products you would never buy for yourself but will still readily purchase to fulfill some need to return home laden with memorabilia to give others.
Recall just about any trip you have taken to a tourist site. No doubt, you have seen store that sells mugs or other trinkets as souvenirs. Perhaps you have no need of a new mug. Perhaps you have no desire to possess a chintzy reminder of your trip. Or, perhaps the mug is just plain awful. Whatever the case, imagine that you do not want to own this particular mug. Still, at the right price, it could be a suitable gift your neighbor who has been dutifully chasing kids off your lawn while you were on vacation. Thus, you may purchase this artifact and, in so doing, become the satisfied customer. For her part, your curmudgeonly neighbor may, out of guilt, out of a love of kitsch, or out of a need for an extra beverage container, keep the item. Your neighbor is then the satisfied, or at least gratified, consumer.
Thus, an entire industry—the cheesy tourist gift shop—exists in no small part due to this distinction between the customer who wants to buy but not own the product and the consumer who is not the buyer but is content to own it. And I bet, like me, you have no end of mugs, magnets, and other such tchotchkes from places you have never visited and never would visit cluttering up your house.
The economic, cultural, and epistemological advantages of introducing college-educated citizens into society are evident. College is a public good even as it benefits individual students. Ergo, the old dichotomy between the public good and private benefit is and has always been false. In this formulation with the student as the college’s consumer and society as its customer, we can see that the product a college offers is in fact its very mission. Alternately, if you prefer, the mission is a process or a service offered by the institution. However you conceive it, fulfillment of the mission is the desired outcome of institutional success. Importantly, a product, be it the college mission or the souvenir mug, only has value if it benefits both the consumer and the customer. If one is not happy, the whole process is a failure.
This new paradigm allows us to perceive the value of college education to society at large, which would serve to induce that society, via the government, to increase its support of higher education as it once did. Meanwhile, since we can then dispose of the false dichotomy between the societal benefit and the private good of higher education, individual student success can remain an important focus as students gain career and life skills—certainly the most valuable outcome from the student-as-customer model.
Furthermore, understanding this new paradigm for higher ed can inform how other mission-driven organizations regard and present themselves in the world.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.