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How Similar Is the Student Experience to Customer Experience?

VimalVimal | February 22, 2018

Go to a non-business department in any university and ask what they think of the idea that they are actually selling a product/service and should treat their students like a business treats their customers.

In all likelihood, you’ll get a lot of horrified looks.

The students will nod in agreement, but the faculty — especially those who are passionate about academia – will give you haughty glares and might just evict you from the premises.

After all, how dare you accuse them of being involved in such lowly and plebian pursuits as commerce.

And if you think that language was painful, try going to a lit department. You’ll probably spend half an hour listening to a speech peppered with every possible literary device that could probably be condensed to: “You are pleb and should disappear from my sight.”

Unfortunately for those who are so enamored with academia they can no longer see the books for the library, we have unpleasant news: you are selling a product and a service.

When you start teaching and handing out higher education degrees for free, then we can talk about you being above “plebeian pursuits.” Until then, though, as long as students pay for their education, whether directly or indirectly, they are customers.


According to the Oxford Dictionary a product is:

An article or substance that is manufactured or refined for sale.

It’s a decent definition, but the one in the Business Dictionary is a little more up our alley – you know, because we actually do this stuff for a living. Thus, they define a product as:

A good, idea, method, information, object or service created as a result of a process and serves a need or satisfies a want. It has a combination of tangible and intangible attributes (benefits, features, functions, uses) that a seller offers a buyer for purchase.

All that hoopla can be boiled down to: something people need and/or want and are willing to pay for.
And no matter how academia swings it, a higher education is a product. Regardless of the motivation behind it, people pay to get a college and/or university degree.

Whether they do it for job security, for the “college experience”, for the love of knowledge, or for any other reason under the sun, they are still buying a product, which makes them customers.

So, what about students that don’t pay? The ones on scholarships, for example.

Well, they are still paying, but instead of using money, they are paying with their time and effort. To keep that scholarship, they have more stringent conditions they have to meet than other students. If their grades drop below a certain level, they will no longer be entitled to the scholarship, so they usually have to work much harder than other students.

And before you scoff at the idea that time and effort aren’t the same thing as paying with cash, we have one question for you: are you willing to give your employer your time and effort for free?

There is no such thing as a truly free education. And when you pay for something, it’s a product, no matter how many tenured professors would like to deny it.

How the Student Journey Parallels the Customer Journey

There are quite a few parallels between the student journey and the customer journey. In fact, if we look closely, we can say they are pretty much identical, at least in terms of the process. The specifics might differ, but the overall process is the same.

The buying process consists of six major steps, namely:
• Problem recognition
• Research
• Evaluation
• Purchase Decision
• Purchase
• Post-Purchase Evaluation

In other words, a consumer has a problem he/she wants to fix. They research their options, evaluate the alternatives on the market, decide on an option, and then make their purchase. Subsequently, they evaluate the product after purchasing and using it.

And if you think about it, students go through the exact same process.

Problem Recognition

A student decides (or their parents decide for them) that they will go to college. In most cases, it’s because they want job security, but things like the college experience and gaining knowledge also play a role.

Information Search

At this point, they decide to research their options. First, they need to decide on what are of study to focus on, so that means doing research. Next, they need to look at schools, financing, and all the other related information.


At this point, students begin to narrow down their alternatives. They look at schools that are within their budget, both financial and in terms of their academic results. They look at location, experiences of other students and so on.

In other words, they evaluate their options just like they would when making any other major purchase. The only real difference is the barrier to entry established by academic performance, and that is only in terms retail because there is a similar barrier to entry when purchasing real estate, except that it’s dictated by the amount you earn rather than your grades in school.

Purchase Decision

At this point, a consumer is still considering whether or not to make the purchase. They understand what their options are, but they’re still considering.
This also holds true for students. Until the moment they sign on the dotted line, they can still walk away. And quite a few do.


The student has finally decided to go ahead with the “purchase” and signs on the dotted line, handing themselves over for a few years to the college.

Post-Purchase Evaluation

With students, the purchase is ongoing in the sense that the relationship continue for a few years. During this time, they evaluate the services they are being offered. While it’s rare for students to switch to another school if they feel they aren’t getting the service they’ve been promised, it can still negatively impact the school’s brand, leading to fewer sign-ups in the future.

How Colleges and Universities Can Benefit from Improving Student Experience

Colleges and universities are in the same boat as any business. They have to stand out to attract students to enroll. If no one enrolls, then they won’t have enough money to operate.

Now, considering that a large percentage of companies have finally acknowledged that customer experience is one of the main criteria they compete on, it makes sense that the student experience is just as important.

Consider it like this. A student attends your school but is dissatisfied with the experience. They might not leave for another school – in fact, they are unlikely to do so because of the culture and the difficulty of doing so. However, they will not be complimentary.

They will post on social media constantly, complaining about your school. Now, with one student, no one will take notice, but if too many students are displeased, their negative comments online could negatively impact your brand.

Conversely, if your students all enjoy an outstanding experience, they are more likely to become advocates and improve your brand. And we all know that the better the brand, the more students you will have clamoring to enroll, which is exactly the result you’re looking for.

Though it might be difficult to accept, a slight shift in perspective – going from students should be happy with whatever they get to students are customers and their experience is just as vital – will do wonders for your institution.