in Education

What If Higher Ed Was Customer Centered?

If I’ve learned anything from being on the customer experience side of higher education marketing, it’s how crazy the admissions process makes parents and students. For all of the grief we give so-called helicopter parents for being overbearing, protective and unable to let their kids fly and make mistakes, I can see the look on their faces really stems from the investment they’ve put in. You spend nearly two decades grooming something to be as perfect as it can be and you’d want to make damn sure that whenever you gave them away to someone else that they’re going to put your kid in the best possible situation to better themselves.

This obviously leads to some detachment from reality. Like when a kid with a B- average hovers near the counselor at the semi-elite school he’s interested in, because he thinks that nagging someone and asking a ton of questions is going to make him more attractive. (In reality, it’s probably the parent who is doing the hovering. But I digress…) Or the people who want to major in six things, because they think the key to cracking the modern economy is not specializing but simply being good at everything. (Because it’s that easy right?)

My personal favorite is this question: What’s the best major to get a job? 

I usually bristle at this question, because I’m not exactly the guy you come to for anything other than straight talk. I’m of the opinion that if you believe in your product, you don’t to do a hard sell. You configure your entire strategy around providing an experience that gives the customer a chance to see how it’s superior to anything else they’re considering. The issue is, not all of us know who our customer is.

So going back to the whole “best major to get a job” question.

I will then laugh and say “look, no one here is going to tell you this probably. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. College isn’t about finding a job. It’s about finding yourself.” 

The fact that I took the classes I took didn’t prepare for my the job market by themselves. It’s about what you do with the skills. Obviously this applies less for some careers than others. For all of the people who show up on Day 1 — or before then — talking about being pre-med as if it’s a career path that everyone can manage, you obviously need a foundation to ensure that you’ll be more successful taking that long, arduous path towards your ultimate goal. But for the undecided liberal arts major considering four unrelated things, it’s really about pushing yourself to think critically.

It’d be easy to blame the market. We’re just giving them what they want, after all. We tailor the messaging towards the clientele. But it’s pretty clear that people don’t know what they want. Or better put, they’re low-information consumers even in the best of times. We’ve built a foundation on a rickety system that wasn’t developed organically. We change the rules all of the time. Everyone has different rules. Imagine applying to live in a new country but there are thousands of them and each has their own rules, processes and standards for admitted new citizens. Not to mention you have to pay them for the honour and after you’ve done so, if you have success they’ll be calling you soon after to ask for more money to support new citizensDoes this sound like a good deal? When it’s standing between you and success in a global economy, probably so.

Instead of simplifying the process, we just keep making it as difficult as possible. When is the messaging to be simplified and will someone have the courage to be honest in every aspect of the process, high minded ideals be damned? Or is the notion that college is about learning how to think no longer a worthy cause in itself?

Do we in marketing have a responsibility to the barrage of information at people’s disposal that’s done nothing to improve the process for customers? Or is the fact that our customers come to us, enough of a reason to keep them generally in the dark because it’s good for business?

Lots of questions with no elegant answers abound.

Note: I realize there are different kinds of college experiences, many that focus on vocational programs rather than liberal arts. But I’m intentionally choosing to focus here on the non-profit industry of academic institutions both public & private.