REPORT: Universities should treat students like customers

A report from Qualtrics suggested that, because higher education is a commodity, universities should treat students and their families like customers.

Critics of the student-as-customer approach say that grade inflation and administrators giving into students’ demands devalue college degrees.

A consulting company recently suggested that higher education is a commodity, so students and their families are customers. 

report from Qualtrics, which helps businesses and organizations improve products and services, gives recommendations based on interviews with “more than 7,000 education community members and over 2,500 education employees worldwide." 

“Thinking of education as a commodity is a long-standing taboo but it’s time to push back on this outdated way of thinking,” the report reads. “The cost of education is continuing to rise and student and family expectations for educational institutions are growing.” 

Qualtrics has served higher education clients, including Regis University, which used Qualtrics in an effort to increase enrollment in the Anderson College of Business and Computing

The report continues by asserting that students, families, and other stakeholders are customers in higher education. An analysis of “[s]tudents and families,” who “have high expectations,” reveals priority areas for universities, according to Qualtrics. 

In two of its priority areas, Qualtrics recommends that universities “[b]uild trust with equity-driven decisions for greater impact” and “[p]ut community members first to improve satisfaction.” Qualtrics cited a study, which claimed that “students of color (Black, Latina/o, multiracial, another race or ethnicity) exhibit substantially less trust in their college than White students.” 

Putting community members, or stakeholders, first, Qualtrics says, “puts them at the center of institutional decision-making.”

Administrators interviewed by Modern Campus, a higher education technology company, similarly observed that universities “charge students large sums of money in exchange for their degrees and diplomas.”

“It is little wonder that today’s students are now behaving more like consumers than students of years gone by.”

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While Qualtrics and Modern Campus imply that the cost of college justifies the student-as-customer approach, critics of this approach say that the value of higher education defies market logic, and treating students like customers undermines its value. 

Critics often cite grade inflation and students’ demands of administrators as consequences of treating students like customers. Reports from the past few decades show that grade averages have risen with tuition, with the 1990s marking a tipping point for expensive tuition, according to several sources. 

A 1996 report from the Brookings Institution declared, “Higher Tuition, More Grade Inflation.” From the 1990s to 2010, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) reported, students became more likely to graduate from college, not because of performance, but because of grade inflation. 

“As schools face increased scrutiny and, in some cases, increased funding incentives, they may respond by taking action to increase graduation rates,” NBER wrote. “Changing standards for degree receipt is a low-cost way to increase graduation rates.”

Grade inflation has continued to the present, even at America’s most elite universities. A graph in The Harvard Crimson shows that the average Harvard student’s GPA increased by .39 from 2002 to 2022. 

“By the time Harvard moved to abolish the Dean’s List, 92 percent of students qualified,” The Harvard Crimson reported. This trend “perverts the liberal arts education, which should center on risk-taking and pushing oneself intellectually instead of sheltering in ‘easy-A’ classes.”

As Campus Reform Higher Education Fellow Nicholas Giordano has suggested, easy-A’s devalue college degrees. In an interview with Real America’s Voice, he described recent demands that students made of university administrators. 

“I look at it as a result of the entitlement culture that we’ve built in the United States–from the 'customer is always right' attitude,” Giordano told Real America’s Voice

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He referenced New York University firing an organic chemistry professor because students said his class was “too hard” and protesters at the New School demanding “A” grades for the semester. 

“If the college capitulates and gives everyone an ‘A,’ what does it say about all those college degrees to the corporations when these people graduate and want to get jobs?” Giordano asked. 

“The critical thinking skills are a problem.” 

Campus Reform contacted Qualtrics, Modern Campus, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and Harvard for comment. This article will be updated accordingly.