Are Students Customers? It Doesn’t Matter.

Students sitting outside on campus

For the last several years, there has been debate about whether students in higher education should be considered to be “customers.”  I have heard various arguments over the years against this viewpoint, including ideas against that point of view, like, “students aren’t customers, they don’t pay for grades.” As well as, in favor, “students are customers because they are paying for a service.” Recently, I read a thread on Reddit suggesting that some feel that college students aren’t customers, but actually the product of higher education. Still more posit that the products delivered in higher education are the experiences offered and degrees conferred. Either way, what is crystal-clear is that there isn’t consensus in this debate.

But does it matter?

The fact remains that debating this topic won’t solve the challenges of increasing student satisfaction, retention, and helping to mitigate the enrollment cliff—in fact, the debate likely exacerbates these issues. Today’s generation of students want to be attended to and cared for, and enhancing customer service is pivotal in this regard (Inside Higher Ed, 2023). This doesn’t mean that they want to be coddled—just valued and heard—regardless of whether or not we consider them to be customers. Perhaps this is most challenging to consider in the classroom. Students pay for the opportunity to gain knowledge from experts who will evaluate their learning—which confirms the thesis that students don’t pay for grades, they pay for teaching—regardless of the outcome.


A Better Question

Instead of asking (and debating) whether students are customers, a better question for institutional leaders is: “How do we show students that we value them?” One way to approach this question is for you to consider what makes you feel valued in the organizations, businesses, and programs in which you participate. It is also important to underscore, however, that what makes you feel valued may not be the same for others. The “Golden Rule” that many of us grew up learning—“treat others as you want to be treated”—has become an outdated construct in favor of the “Platinum Rule,” which advises us to “treat others as they want to be treated.” This important nuance shifts the focus from our needs to the needs of the person in front of us and focuses our attention on what they value. The same can ultimately be true for campus leaders and students. What do our students need? And, as a leader, how am I showing them that they are valued? How does this vary from doing my job, and getting my work done? In reality, the two should be inextricably connected.


Show Students that You Value Them

We can all think of people and departments where students flock. Why do students gravitate to certain individuals or offices? The answer is, because they feel welcomed and valued. An article by Forbes highlights that students who feel like they belong at a college are more likely to persist (“Give Students a Sense of Belonging and They Are Less Likely to Drop Out, Study Finds,” Forbes, 2023). However this should be the norm, not an applauded exception. Making students feel valued should be engrained in your campus culture. So how do you show students that you value them?  Here are some tips to consider:

Make Each Interaction Personal

For years, we’ve heard that students don’t want to feel like a number—none of us do. One of my personal pet peeves when I’m standing in a line is when the service provider looks me in my eye and says, “NEXT!” It would be much more personal if the service provider simply said, “May I help you?”  In order to make students feel valued, we should get personal with them. Use their name, ask how they are, and invite them to come back to see you again. The practice of treating students as you would friends, rather than as impediments to your work, must be sincere and frequent. This is true at all levels: when Presidents or leaders with a VP title make a habit of walking around campus or their offices and having genuine, one-on-one interactions with students, this can go a very long way in creating a warm and welcoming culture for the better.

Ask Questions

Students often seek out an individual or office knowing that they will be heard, and for this reason, it’s important for us to listen to them. We should also try to determine if a student is asking one question but really seeking advice on a more pressing issue. For example, a student may go to the Registrar’s office and ask about the withdrawal policy. This is easy to answer by providing a link to the university’s website, but why is the student asking? Are they considering withdrawing? If so, why? This is a perfect opportunity to dig deeper, get curious, and show that you value them by asking how you can help.


It’s critical that we ask students for their opinions and listen to their feedback. The best way to show that we’ve listened and heard them is by making changes based on their input. Including students on institutional committees (including search committees) is critical in showing that you not only want to hear their thoughts and opinions—but that you value them. Another powerful tool is hosting open forums and “fireside chats” for students to share their ideas and concerns, as being available is critical. While having an open-door policy is preferred, you can also schedule opportunities to gather feedback that may better fit your own style. 

Incentives Aren’t Free

Providing incentives around campus can be critical in increasing engagement. If you want students to engage, offering pizza, a t-shirt, or other incentive can provide impactful feedback. While students will see incentives as “free,” the feedback they offer will be priceless.

Whether or not your institution considers students as customers, showing that you value them is critical to enhancing their experience and retaining them going forward. But students won’t stay at a college or university because of just one person or office—the reality is, they will stay at a place that cultivates an intentional and sustained culture of care. Changing your campus culture, however, takes time and commitment. Academic Impressions offers a variety of programs, trainings, and even a “customer service skills certification” that can help you to enhance your service culture. The majority of these offerings cost far less than the price of retaining just one student—if you’d like to learn more about how we can help, please contact me.


After 30 years as a senior Student Affairs administrator, Heath Boice-Pardee joined Academic Impressions as its first Head of Practice for Service Excellence to pursue his passion of partnering with campuses to enhance student experience and retention. Heath is co-author of the book, Elevating Customer Service in Higher Education: A Practical Guide, published by Academic Impressions. He also serves as President of the Association for Service Excellence in Higher Education (ASEHE).