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Customer Excellence: A Goal for Universities
Business Journal

Customer Excellence: A Goal for Universities

by Brandon Busteed and Simon Cooper
Chart: data points are described in article

Story Highlights

  • Students want great jobs and great lives, not just diplomas
  • Students and parents are demanding more from colleges than ever before
  • Colleges need to measure their success by measuring the success of their graduates

What if colleges and universities adopted a culture of "customer excellence" in how they engage students? What would those campuses look like?

These aren't crazy questions. They're immediate and relevant.

Colleges and universities should create world-class cultures of customer excellence. They should become more like The Ritz-Carlton -- but not in the way you think.

Students as Customers

The problem is, the word "customer" isn't used very often -- if ever -- in the context of higher education. But colleges and universities certainly have customers or stakeholders who matter greatly to their success.

There are many colleges and universities, with varying goals and missions -- but they all enroll students. Yet little attention is paid to students as customers in higher education's organizational model. This omission is a major blind spot because students are indeed customers who are trying to accomplish more with their college educations than receiving a diploma -- they want great jobs and great lives.

Research from the Gallup-Purdue Index, a study of more than 60,000 college graduates in the U.S., measures the degree to which college graduates achieve great jobs and great lives by assessing their engagement at work and their overall well-being across five dimensions: purpose, social, financial, community and physical well-being.

This study revealed insights into linkages between key experiences students had during college and their long-term outcomes in work and life as graduates.

Graduates who were "emotionally supported" -- who strongly agreed they received support from professors who cared about them as a person and made them excited about learning, and from a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams -- were twice as likely to be engaged in their work and almost twice as likely to be thriving in their well-being later in life.

What's more, graduates who had "experiential learning" -- who strongly agreed they worked on long-term projects that took a semester or longer to complete; who had a job or internship where they applied what they were learning in the classroom; and who were extremely active in extracurricular activities -- also doubled their odds of being engaged in their work later in life.

These are impressive outcomes. Yet a quarter of all graduates strongly disagreed that they had any of these crucial experiences while they were at college. When it comes to providing students with the key experiences that will lead to success later in life, the U.S. higher education report card is poor.

Skyrocketing Costs

These findings alone should motivate higher education leaders to consider how well they are serving their most important customers: students. Skyrocketing tuition along with questionable returns for graduates has created a national conversation about the value of a college degree.

Full tuition, room and board at top-tier universities has reached figures close to $70,000 per year. Assuming a typical semester schedule has students enrolled in classes for 32 weeks a year, this adds up to more than $300 per day. A night on campus costs as much as a night at many Ritz-Carlton locations.

But cost is not the primary reason The Ritz-Carlton example is relevant to colleges and universities. The Ritz-Carlton creates a culture of engaged employees who take ownership of engaging their customers.

Leaders, managers and front-line employees across The Ritz-Carlton live these values. The company's motto, "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen," empowers all employees -- from the general manager to the housekeepers -- to deliver world-class experiences for their guests.

These experiences transcend what guests expect by anticipating and providing what guests need before they know they need it. The job functions performed by Ritz-Carlton employees are not any different than employees of other hotels. But they deliver an entirely different experience driven by values and culture, not by fancy sheets and pillows.

The company measures its success by its guests' deep attachment to its brand and has asked them whether they strongly agree they "can't imagine a world without The Ritz-Carlton." Guests who feel that deep attachment are more likely to stay more nights.

In contrast, the Gallup-Purdue Index shows that only 26% of U.S. college graduates strongly agree they can't imagine a world without their alma mater. That's about half the rate of Ritz-Carlton guests who are asked whether they can't imagine a world without Ritz-Carlton.

How Colleges and Universities Can Measure Their Success

If colleges and universities were to get serious about aligning values, culture and incentives to put student engagement first, there is much they would do differently. They would measure their success by the success of their graduates. They would measure whether graduates achieve great jobs and great lives.

They would change how they operate. They would demand all students -- not just a handful -- receive career planning, mentoring and developmental opportunities, and instill them with a sense of well-being in how they lead their lives. They would align staff and faculty incentives with these demands.

Colleges and universities would also pay more attention to whether staff and faculty were engaged in their own work as well as in students' lives.

As The Ritz-Carlton has learned, engaging guests begins and ends with engaging employees.

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