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Are Students Customers of Their Universities?

SIOP Member’s Research Says Schools May Want to Rethink Student-University Roles

By Stephany Schings, Communications Specialist
When one of Dr. R. Zachary Finney’s students brought a class project to his office recently, Finney, an assistant professor of marketing finishing his fourth year teaching at the University of South Alabama, gave him a 20% penalty on his grade for turning the project in late.
Finney’s project guidelines clearly stated the penalty for all late projects, but the student became angry at him, he said, for giving him a poor grade.
“I have this guy in my office who thinks he is a graduating senior…and this guy was late to class all semester and he turned in his paper late,” Finney explained. “And after I gave him the 20% penalty, he became angry at me and stood in my office telling me how angry he was with me that he is not going to graduate now. From my perspective I have done exactly what I have told him I was going to do, and now he isn’t going to graduate and he is angry at me for it.”
SIOP Member Treena Gillespie, an assistant professor of Management, also at the University of South Alabama, said this type of reaction represents a sense of entitlement on behalf of the student, and it is becoming a problem for professors to whom she and Finney have spoken.
In competition for the most and best applicants, colleges and universities are increasingly using customer service initiatives to attract students, Gillespie said. But treating students as customers may have a negative effect on their education, she added, if it leads students to feel entitled to good grades or prone to complaining to get what they want but don’t deserve. After dealing with increasing problems in their classes, Gillespie and Finney decided to research the relationship between students’ perceptions as university customers and their educational attitudes and behaviors.
“We were interested in investigating the effects of the entitlement mentality among students because we had seen it in our classes, and we had asked a lot of the other professors about it and they thought it was a problem as well,” said Gillespie, who has been teaching management for 8 years. “While there is information about this practice of treating students as customers, called the student-as-customer (SAC) model, no one had really researched what the implications were for students’ education. In terms of educational outcomes, we were kind of interested for students who perceived themselves as customers; were they really involved in their education?”
The two conducted a survey of 1,025 undergraduate students at the University of South Alabama in the spring of 2008 and presented their findings at the 24th Annual SIOP Conference this April. Of those surveyed, 52% perceived themselves as customers of the university, responding positively to the statement, “As a student, I believe that my role is that of a customer of the university.”
After measuring other attitudes and behaviors, including entitlement (“I insist on getting the respect that is due me” and “I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve”), satisfaction with the university (perceptions of their decision as a wise choice, whether or not they would again choose to attend the university, and whether or not they would recommend the school to others), attitude toward complaining (“It bothers me quite a bit if I don’t complain about an unsatisfactory experience at the university” and “I often complain when I’m dissatisfied with the university because I feel it is my duty to do so”), and involvement with education (“I believe in studying hard to get good grades” and “I like to keep abreast of current events.”), the researchers found that students who considered themselves customers of their university were more likely to feel entitled and to complain—regardless of their satisfaction with the university—but they were not any more involved in their education than were other students.
“The students who thought they were customers of their universities, they felt like they were being owed something as a student,” Gillespie explained.
Satisfaction, but not customer perceptions, predicted educational involvement—meaning those students who were most satisfied with their education showed the most involvement whereas those students who viewed themselves as customers were not necessarily more involved in their education than other students.
Finney and Gillespie explained that among students who view themselves as customers, there are also two possible trains of thought the students follow—the exchange theory and service-dominant logic.
“The exchange theory is something that came up in the mid 1970s,” Finney explained. “In simplest terms it is kind of like ‘you scratch my back and I scratch yours.’”
Service-dominant logic is a new theory, Finney said, that first became popularized in 2004. It looks at consumers and businesses as co-producers of value.
“Getting your hair cut, no matter how skilled the person is at being a barber, getting a positive outcome depends at least in part on the person who is getting the service,” Finney explained. “If you don’t know how to explain how you want your hair cut, there is no way the barber can give you a good haircut.”
The research suggests that most students lean toward the exchange theory and don’t think of themselves as being “co-producers” of knowledge and education.
“If students see the world as the service-dominant logic, then they would look at education as my professor is here to give me an opportunity to make an effort where I can help myself learn,” Finney explained. “It’s somewhat opposed to the idea of exchange.”
The results of the study may have significant implications for students and universities, Finney and Gillespie said.
Their results indicate that SAC perceptions by students are prevalent, and “more importantly,” their report says, “a student who holds SAC perceptions is also likely to hold attitudes and engage in behaviors that are not conducive to success as a student. Students who perceive themselves as customers of the university are more likely to complain and to feel entitled to receiving positive outcomes from the university; they are not, however, any more likely to be involved in their education.”
To aid universities, Finney and Gillespie give several recommendations in their research including making sure students are vested in their education.
“In light of these findings,” they write, “universities may find it useful to inform their student ‘customers’ that they must co-produce their desired educational outcomes. Universities could emphasize students’ accountability for helping create knowledge and meeting learning expectations.”
 Otherwise, the research warns, “universities that implement customer-service initiatives may attract students only to find that those students are not inclined to work hard.”
In particular, the researchers’ results suggest that universities using the SAC model could benefit by specifically defining the student’s role as a “co-producing” customer rather than as a passive recipient of knowledge.
“If we tell students they are customers then we have to be careful in setting up expectations of accountability for them,” Gillespie said. “We would rather they be viewed as a co-producer in learning than a passive recipient. We aren’t necessarily saying the customer model is the wrong model, but if universities are going to do that then one of our recommendations from this research is that we still need to explain that students are co-producers, they have a responsibility to participate in their education.”
Secondly, the researchers found that satisfaction with the university did not predict the propensity to complain, but it did predict students’ involvement with their education.
Along these lines,” they write, “universities might survey students and recent alumni; the universities might examine the frustrations of those who express the highest involvement with learning.”
“College faculty and administrators should be heartened by the fact that those students who are happy in the college environment are those who are strongly involved with the student’s traditional role – learner,” Finney and Gillespie write in their research. “For all of their new facilities and extracurricular programs, college still satisfies those ‘customers’ who are engaged in learning. These results suggest that, perhaps, the administrators who have tried to alter the students’ traditional role have gotten it all wrong.”
There has been some debate regarding the SAC model over the last 10 years, Gillespie said.
“The focus on customers in the 1990s spurred the SAC for universities,” she said. “From speaking with various colleagues, different schools view the SAC model differently. Those trying to increase enrollment may use the SAC model quite a bit more than other schools.”
Finney related his own negative account of a school he felt went too far in treating students as customers.
“When I was interviewing for jobs in 2004, I interviewed at another school and I was told very frankly that ‘we are going to assess your teaching based on student satisfaction and that if students are not satisfied with you, you will not get tenure, you will be fired,’” Finney explained.
Gillespie said that through the research they found that there is a lot of variability across universities as well as different colleges and schools within them.
“Some of the requirements for accreditation keep the focus on students, so the accountability is still there,” she said. “But it is difficult as faculty to deal with students as customers while balancing the expectation of performance.”
However, Gillespie and Finney said more straightforward expectations of students by universities could help combat some of the negative effects of the SAC model.
“The main thing that we took out of it is that we have to be very careful about giving students very clear guidelines,” Gillespie said. “Otherwise, if we are perpetuating the notion that students are customers and students are always right then that is what we are going to get. We are going to get students that don’t want to work hard and our education value is going to go down.”