Business Practices (Achieving Administrative Excellence)

The Student as Consumer

Three generations ago, students arrived at college primarily expecting academic resources: teachers, classrooms and libraries. Now, with increased enrollment competition and the rise of the student as consumer, much more is expected of the institution.

At Bethany College and other residential liberal arts colleges, we have come to realize that a student’s 168-hour week consists of 18 hours in the classroom and 50 sleeping; for the remaining 100 hours, it’s up to us to provide the comprehensive educational experience. The challenge of providing that experience has increased cost along with creative thinking about how to meet students’ expectations.

At Bethany, for example, the recent growth in student activities has included reorganizing the equestrian program; expanding athletic teams (lacrosse and field hockey); fielding a marching band and adding or upgrading facilities for athletics, fitness/wellness and study skills. Overall student-life expenditures have doubled at Bethany in the last seven years.

Today’s students (and their parents) vote with their checkbooks, expecting amenities and student services unimagined by earlier generations in their wildest dreams. This has created a competitive climate unprecedented in our experience as campus CEOs. National trends reveal the increasing focus on student comfort and expectations.

State-of-the-art food courts, fitness centers, athletic facilities and high-end residences are not only expected, but also essential to driving enrollment and retention. We have been advocates of Institutional Reviews at the point of presidential transition. A team of outside consultants devotes 30 to 45 days evaluating data, visit campus for three to five days on on-site work and then furnish a comprehensive blueprint for the future of the organization. In the enrollment area, almost all IR teams recommend improved amenities, facilities and activities to make a campus more “user friendly.”

“Colleges position themselves to offer a unique angle, and since math, history, literature, and science are not typically unique, it’s the extracurricular experience that has to be,” notes Scott Carlson in a July 28, 2014, Chronicle of Higher Education article.

Family expectations of the college experience have also upped the ante. As we’ve mentioned previously, we’re all familiar with the so-called “helicopter” parents and even what some have called the “snowplow” families who continue to be involved in their students’ lives, deeply involved not only in directing their children’s selection of a school, but also trying to smooth the path for their children even after they have matriculated. As reported in the August 24, 2014 Washington Post, some families even hire professional interior decorators to upgrade their children’s dormitory residences.

Technology has made comparison-shopping as easy as a click away. Student life professionals, who have added counselors and social workers to their staffs to deal with the new “student-as-client” model, note that the Internet and social media foster increasing demand for the latest in campus attractions. Incoming students tend to be familiar with what a campus offers even before they matriculate. Accompanying those expectations is the sense of entitlement about achieving that “cool, new job” upon graduation — at a competitive salary and in the city of the graduate’s choice, of course.

The latest “bells and whistles” in student amenities and facilities are here to stay as institutions scramble to keep pace with their consumers’ demands — and with each other.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Authors

Dr. Marylouise Fennell, RSM, a former president of Carlow University, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and principal of Hyatt Fennell, a higher education search firm.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was previously president of Bethany College, Wesley College, and Lincoln Memorial University. He is chair of the Board of Directors of Academic Search, Inc. and serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards.

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