Spring 1985, Volume 2
Essay

Claude T. Wynn
The Impact Of Our View Of Students On Future Planning

institutions of higher learning are facing rapid and substantial environmental change. A major portion of this change (population movements, age mixes, energy crunches, economic conditions, etc.) is outside their control. In order, however, to maintain some stability any such institution must determine its unique purpose, its strengths and weaknesses, and its educational philosophy. These are usually contained in a broadly framed mission statement that defines the organization as precisely as possible. This may be defined in terms of:

1. Product/Service Definition

2. Consumer Identification

3. Principle technology for the production and/or delivery of the product or service.'

In their attempt to deal with a product/service definition versus consumer identification an interesting questions arises: What are, students? Are they our product or our consumers? Most students feel that they are consumers. However, on the other side, people in the business community, which includes legislators, are just as quick to indicate that students are obviously our product.

It is attractive and possible to support a case that students are both products and consumers. Academicians and academic administrators when questioned tend to take this "compromise position". However, from the perspective of a succinct mission statement to guide operational decision making, defining students as both falls to define them and thus offers little direction. This lack of precision in developing guidelines to aid in determining the ultimate objectives of an institution of higher learning can be a major contributing factor to the many decisions that don't solve the intended problems or create more or just die from lack of application,

A significant portion of the academic institution's organizational structure appears based on the premise that students are products. Academic institutions tend to be bureaucratic organizations. That is, they strive for internal consistency and harmony forcing those that they interact with to adapt to them within a very limited range of operational latitude. This operating from a normative framework assumes not only a well designed system but also that either the environment it is serving changes very slowly or that the organization's importance to that environment is so great that people are willing to make the necessary adaptations as the existing structure becomes more and more in conflict with current needs.

Some examples of this forced adaptation are the difficulties faced by anyone other than the "normal" student (in terms of age, sex, hours of attendance, purpose, etc.) in following established rules. There are specifications that must be met by entering students (raw materials). These specifications vary by institution, but they always seem to be as high as the institution's demand-related position will permit. Once the raw material enters the production process there are several assembly lines (majors or areas of concentration) from which a choice can be made. However, no matter which is selected, the student must take a prescribed number of courses and examinations, is required to maintain a minimum grade point average, and has a very limited range of truly free electives. There are often difficult transcript and other record requirements. There are established fees for services, many of which, particularly for part time students, are not wanted or cannot be utilized. In short, an examination of almost any institution of higher learning will uncover administrative practices that no longer serve a functional purpose, but are firmly entrenched and exist because students are considered, at least implicitly, as a raw material rather than a consumer with alternatives.

The organzational structure and processes described above suggest that students have historically been viewed as products by institutions of higher learning. The negative results from a descrepancy between this perspective and reality were minimized and thus hidden during a period when demand for a college education was growing rapidly. However, today we have more facilities and higher operating costs than ever before, at a time when the number of high school graduates is shrinking nationally,

This situation has led to the addition of activities to the normal operations of a college or university that could best be described as competitive. Some examples of this competitive behavior include more attention to high school relationships, improved counseling and financial aid, more liberal transfer of credits policy, etc. Departments of Continuing Education have been established to recognize the needs of the non-traditional students. Many classes, as well as whole programs, have been moved from the campus to more convenient locations for the student. Junior and community colleges in an attempt to establish themselves took the lead in many of these consumer oriented changes. However, four year colleges and universities are now responding, i.e., competing for consumers.'

The product orientation of higher education hindered its predicting and planning for the current situation, even though the data was becoming available 18-20 years ago. Even now one must seriously question if current competitive responses are related to consumer sensitivity or to the behavior of their major sources of revenue, state legislatures and federal agencies. As the question of what constitutes institutional success is many-faceted and probably will never have a definitive answer, the widely applied measurement continues to be student enrollment.

The distinction between viewing students as consumers or as products has some important implications for our process of institutional objective setting. Few of us would disagree that students are "products" of the sum total of life experiences. Higher education is only one of the many forces that affect the lives of our students. Thus, in reality we have the opportunity to influence only a small part of this development process. In addition there is a real question regarding the impact we have on that portion with which we do interact.

Considering the limited amount of quality control possible, should we view students as products of our educational process? Most institutions who point with pride to the quality of their graduates, in something other than just a general sense or a few specific cases, are in a position to restrict entry only to those who would have a high probablity of success regardless of how they spent the time allocated to the educational process. A few institutions compensate for a lack of this input selectivity by rigourous procedures of elimination during the earning of a degree. This approach of quality checks during the process focuses attention on what happens in the process and seems logical. Maybe due to uncertainty regarding the outcome of this focus on the institution's performance, but at least as a result of the competitive pressures discussed above, this in-process elimination seems to be used only sparingly.

While the concept of product liability is not often considered, several recent court actions suggest that perhaps it should be. Current trends in common law indicate that a producer cannot easily escape the responsibility for the performance of his product. In the New Jersey Supreme Court Case of Henningsen vs. Bloomfield Motors, the presiding justice, in part, stated:

. . . we hold that under modern marketing conditions, when a manufacturer puts a new article in thestream of trade and promotes its purchase by thepublic, an implied warranty that it is reasonablysuitable for use as such accompanies it into the handsof the ultimate purchaser.3

Are we really confident enough in higher education as a production process that we are willing to be held responsible when our graduates do not measure up in the "real world"? Those of us who are parents probably have relatively more opportunity to influence the behavior of our off-spring than a formal education process does to students. Would we be comfortable being held legally responsible for all future acts of our children?

The view that students are consumers would seem to offer a more realistic approach to our long range planning process. But what is it they are consuming and what decision process do they go through in making their consumption choices? First, though it may be viewed as less glamorous, we must recognize that we are dispensers of information, rather than suppliers of knowledge.4 We can provide an environment where intellectual skills may be developed, but the actual development of those skills is not directly controlled by us. Knowledge and intellectual skills (i.e., the application of that knowledge in an orderly fashion) is an individual and personal act. It cannot be imposed from the outside.

Whether learning or the acquisition of knowledge occurs is determined by the student's attitudes, interests, feelings, and willingness to put forth the effort learning requires.5 The institution can facilitate acquisition through high quality faculty, well designed curriculum, an adequate library, and a general environment that rewards learning behavior, but it cannot control the student's behavior to ensure knowledge acquisition. Without this control it is not logical for the student to be considered a product of the institution. Under these conditions it is very risky for the institution to behave as if students were their products.

Students as consumers enter higher education to solve a problem. They perceive higher education as the most economical, convenient, and surest alternative to achieve some desired situation in their life. What they are purchasing is the opportunity to utilize the institution's facilities, i.e., faculty, curriculum, libraries, etc. for the purpose of obtaining a degree and, hopefully in a signficant number of instances, knowledge.

Once we begin to view students as consumers with varying and unique needs they desire to satisfy, rather than relatively homogenous raw materials to be processed into a single finished product, we immediately become aware of the advantages of segmenting that large group out there, that we used to view as potential students. In terms of how people wish to satisfy their educational needs the consumer market for education is far from homogenous. A competitive advantage is going to develop for those institutions that tailor their offerings to specific groups having more or less homogenous needs within the broader and more heterogeneous total market. Some familiar examples of this approach would include night classes, weekend only degree programs, an MA designed for senior citizens, and T.V. or correspondence courses.

A consumer orientation does not mean abdicating our responsibility as professional educators to design meaningful academic programs. It does mean that various needs in the population serve to identify areas in which new curriculums might be developed or old curriculums might be modified. The key to this process is, first, developing mechanisms to become aware of current and emerging needs and processing this data into meaningful categories, i.e., homogenous and reachable consumer segments. Secondly, we must be fully aware of our strengths and weaknesses as an organization and respond only to those needs that utilize our strengths. To accomplish this we must conceptualize, verbalize, and thus clearly understand our current strategy. This strategy must constantly be examined for its appropriateness in light of the current and future evironments; within which we wish to play a role. With this awareness, we can effectively address the question of what, if any, better combinations of consumer groups and distinctive competence can our institution undertake, within a range of reasonable risk?

Distinctive competence or competitive advantage refers to identifying those things that you are currently doing well, or preferably, better than any other institution in your competitive area. This is your primary area of strength and what you want to build on to the degree possible. Successful performance here is necessary for survival. Then you must consider what your institution can potentially do better than other institutions both nationally or even internationally. This is your secondary or developmental area. Successful performance here is necessary in order to be something better tomorrow than you are today.

To keep this planning activity from being just a conceptual exercise, once the best match is made between the strongest curriculums, faculty expertise and interests, physical facilities, etc., and the consumer needs in terms of time of offering, place of offering, and cost of obtaining their satisfaction, this match must be effectively communicated to the consumer segment for which it was developed.

This question is not whether we are going to adapt to changing conditions. If we are going to survive as an institution of higher learning we will have to adapt. The question is will we adapt well, through planned modifications or will we be faced with reacting to crisis situations and probable decline or possibly survive only through chance?

I J.A. Pearce and R.B. Richard, Formulation and Implementation of Competitive Strategy (Richard D. Irwin, Inc., 1982), p. 83.

2 S. Menefee, "Two-Year College: In Step With Today," American Education (December, 1973), p. 26.

3 H.M. Philo, "Product Liability - Product Safety," Chem Tech (february, 1971), p. 88 ,

4 A. Harrison, "Teacher Accountability - A Fallacious Premise," Unpublished Manuscript (January, 1981), p. 2.

I R.L. Ebel, "What Are Schools For?" Phi Delta Kappa, Vol. LIV, No. I (September, 1972), p. 3.