Do we really know what our product (service) is in education?

I’ve been in education marketing for approximately eight years now. It’s a very interesting field and one that I’m very passionate about.  But, as I’ve looked at education marketing over my years working in it, one question has haunted me, “Do we really know what our product (service) is?” 

Caveat: When I ask this question, I’m focused specifically on the “traditional” college student, defined as a 17-22 year old who is wanting to attain at least a Bachelor’s degree. We have a lot of target audiences in higher education, but for this post, this is the target market I’m focusing on.

Most would look at me with a funny look when I would ask this question. “We provide education, that’s what our product/service is” they would say. But I think we need to get a lot more specific than that and think about what type of education we are providing, what type of education our traditional students are looking for, and whether we emphasize our definition of education throughout the entire student experience.

Students moving into a dorm room with limited space and four bunk beds
“Dorm Style” from Flickr Creative Commons: Katie@!

Rite of Passage/Life Education

What I think traditional students are looking for from their education is “rite of passage/life education.” This includes the incredibly valuable education they gain in the classroom, but it’s so much more than that. When you think about other rites of passage in cultures and compare it with the reasons many students choose to “go away” to college in the United States, you will find some big similarities. Students choose to leave their family and friends, move somewhere they don’t know, surround themselves with total strangers and have to figure out a new social structure, and have to learn to do everyday life tasks (such as laundry) completely on their own. And, they do this voluntarily and with a great level of anticipation and excitement. 

If we think about what we offer to traditional students in this way, some of their choices make a lot more sense. Why aren’t traditional students choosing to stay home and get their education down the road? Why aren’t they taking most of their classes online? Why do they become so entrenched in the culture/pride of the school they go to? The answer is, because they aren’t viewing their education as solely an education. they view it as a rite of passage that requires separation from their current life and identification with a new life.

Changing our Marketing and Processes

So knowing that, how should our marketing change? It depends on what type of school you are and how important the “traditional” student is to your school. For example, community colleges have taken a great step in creating dorms and other student housing options that allow students, even if it’s small, some separation from their previous lives. For all types of schools, we need to find creative ways to talk about the “rite of passage” aspects of coming to our institutions. We show things like student life, but do we really emphasize that growing independence, that chance to start over with a new social circle? Not that I’ve seen.

This change in thinking also needs to change how we interact with the students before and during their time with us.  One of my former colleagues and I disagreed on how often and when we needed to communicate things such as deadlines to students. Her philosophy was that they “needed to be beaten over the head with it” (posters everywhere, daily social media announcements, announcements in class, daily emails, etc.). Her philosophy came from a good place and I respect her for it, I just had a different philosophy based on my “rite of passage” understanding. I definitely agreed that we needed to communicate deadlines in a variety of ways, but not to the point where we were holding their hand as a parent would. My philosophy was that part of their life education was that they needed to learn that they were the ones responsible for keeping track of deadlines. In reality, probably somewhere in the middle is the right answer.

Do you agree with the rite of passage philosophy? Disagree? What do you think we should be doing differently?


3 thoughts on “Do we really know what our product (service) is in education?”

  1. I would agree that there truly is a “journey” that all students undertake when pursuing any sort of higher education, regardless if they are considered traditional or non-traditional students. The journey could be intellectual, spiritual, physical, or emotional or any combination of those (or others). And, I would also agree that there are certain rites of passage within those journeys.

    The question that many universities (in my opinion) are struggling with is: Is the student the customer or is the student the end product? Is my job, as an educator, to please the customer (student) and make sure they have a good “customer experience?” Or is my job to ensure that the broader society has an educated populace that can think for themselves? 🙂

    1. Hi Dr. J!

      Thank you for your comments!

      I really like your description of the various journeys that students are going through.

      I also agree with you about the struggle universities and colleges are having in regards to the “customer” mindset. We tend to, especially in the United States, define customer service as “the customer gets what they want” vs. “the customer gets what they need/what they paid for.” Although not perfect, the best analogy I can come up with is the accountability industries, such as personal training. We don’t pay personal trainers to let us do what we want, we pay them to hold us accountable and kick us into shape. Education, in my opinion, falls into this category. With this mindset, holding students accountable and ensuring they get the life and academic education they paid for (even if it means that they fail a class because they miss an important due date) IS treating them like a customer.

  2. One of my greatest frustrations about the state of higher education is how often colleges are universities exist in a “bubble”. Too many students, professors, and administrators are disengaged from the communities around them and ignore the challenges and opportunities that exist in the cities/towns in which they exist.

    If college is a “rite of passage” / transition into adulthood, then I feel like higher education should spend more time and energy trying to integrate students into the world in which they will shortly be working. Not only do the institutions offer talent, manpower, and direction to their communities, but internships, service projects, and other experiential learning opportunities offer students “real-world” experience and would seem to be a fantastic marketing opportunity for the institutions themselves.

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