It should seem logical to most board members that colleges and universities periodically survey their students and alumni. After all, seeking customer feedback is a practice of every sound business. But the results of such evidence gathering, done right, also can provide an important source of information for academic-quality assurance and improvement.
Using the term “customers” in connection with students will not always be welcome among academics.
After all, use of this term conjures up all kinds of unsavory images like students “buying” grades, or even credentials. Yet in some important ways, students are very much consumers of their higher education experiences, and it is appropriate to consider them as such. For example, most students choose which college to attend, and their satisfaction once enrolled, as expressed to family and friends, may be decisive in influencing their peers to make the same choice. Students are direct consumers of their colleges’ academic offerings, campus facilities, and services, and they are the best experts on their satisfaction with those experiences. And, of course, students participate in a range of processes run by the institution, such as registration and financial aid.
Still, academics have a point when they argue that viewing students only as customers may be a wrong-headed way to look at the teaching and learning process. If pressed to use a corporate or manufacturing analogy, faculty members are more likely to consider students unfinished “raw materials” that are transformed by what the institution does to yield a “value-added” product. Further stretching the analogy in a way more amenable to the views of educators, students also are “co-producers” and “managers” of their own learning.
Students are the ones that make important decisions about how much time to spend on various kinds of learning activities and how they actually will use the learning resources the institution puts at their disposal.
Knowing how students make those learning choices and use the resources available to them—as well as understanding the kinds of experiences students seek—are crucial steps in helping academic leaders, faculty members, and staff members understand what is really happening in the teaching and learning process. Consequently, members of the board’s academic affairs committee will want to understand students’ perspective on their choices as well as the faculty’s. To help them do that, committee members should know how to properly review evidence drawn from student surveys, which is essential in determining student motivations and experiences.