In 2000, Apple’s release of iTunes revolutionized the user experience in music and marked the beginning of the end of record companies’ outmoded model of complete control of recordings. Could a similar shift — decoupling content from a long-established distribution method — do the same thing to higher education? Poor customer service by not treating or students and stakeholders like important parts of the equation could speed us down this path.
If you bought music before the turn of the century, you did so totally on the terms of record companies. You’d hear a good song and either could buy the single (with a B-side that was usually a throwaway track) or, if you were like most consumers, pay $16.99 or some inflated price for a CD or album. Maybe the album was great, perhaps another decent track or two helped you rationalize the purchase, or the rest of the album could be junk. Chances are you couldn’t listen to the album to know for sure, so you shot blindly and hoped for the best. Musicians were almost completely at the mercy of record companies, signing exploitative contracts that Steve Albini ably covered in the eye-opening essay The Problem With Music.
iTunes changed all that. You could listen to samples of all the songs on the album and, if they were all killer/no filler, buy the whole album. If everything outside of the single sounded awful, you could just download the track you wanted for 99 cents — saving time, expense and mental anguish. Some record companies battled this development, but the power and partnerships of Apple meant they brought enough players to make the model viable … and those on the outside could only hold out for so long. In the succeeding years, the tide has turned as bands have created their own distribution models, the most radical in 2007 involving Radiohead releasing “In Rainbows” online and allowing consumers to pay what they wanted. Today, many bands use models such as Kickstarter and PledgeMusic where fans fund their recordings and help mold the musical experience.
In all the discussion of massive online open course (MOOC) education, the hope, hype and hyperbole converge to paint a potential picture not unlike iTunes for the future of higher education. In the best-case scenario, MOOC promoters see a world where consumers are in charge of where, what and how they learn, with some body, alliance or institution aggregating the courses taken into some kind of credential or degree. Courses, professors and colleges become commodities where the best offerings attract students while market forces marginalize inferior professors or obsolete coursework.
And while some critics seem exceptionally gleeful about the end of the higher ed world as we know it, I don’t buy into all the doom and gloom. College is about growth, self-discovery and independence perhaps morseo than the credential. The world will always have parents who will want their kids to get an education and take on greater self-sufficiency (read: move out of their house and learn how to do laundry). Every semester, I write an article about what our students are doing after graduation and things like internships, learning to work in teams and getting involved in campus leadership roles come up over and over as helping them get jobs. The current college climate can still provide a superior environment for success. But …
… and it’s a big but: Colleges that do not provide good customer service for students and potential students will dig themselves the biggest holes. Perhaps even graves. If you work at a college and don’t realize that poor customer service has caused you to lose students, and is making some other students consider transferring, you’re living in a fantasy. If you don’t care about it, you’re part of the problem. Sure, admissions offices may be great at getting students in the front door, but subsequently treating students as numbers instead of humans will end up a negative on your enrollment balance sheet. Just as the record companies didn’t foresee or address the conditions of a market where consumers are in charge, colleges that value a position of power over students instead of a partnership approach will face an uphill climb as student mobility becomes ever greater.
Brace yourself: The future is coming. Fortune favors those who adapt, and who realize emerging models will place a greater priority on serving and satisfying students. When consumers can shop around more, the market favors those with the best goods and services. How would your college fare?