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The rise of the experience industry on campus

Universities prioritize students’ personal satisfaction and positive experiences over their education.


I am fortunate to be in my 15th year of a full-time job at a Canadian university. Over this time, as a faculty member, senator, department chair and associate dean, I have watched a steady, slow and curious transition in the use of language at university away from the word “education” in favour of “experience.” My own institution even launched a “first-year experience” task force designed, as you might guess, to ensure that students are having a good experience. This transition is no accident and can be read first and foremost as a direct consequence of the changing landscape of higher education as traced in the expanding literature on the topic, from Bill Readings’ foundational critique through Benjamin Ginsberg’s “all administrative university” to the recent and lovely call to inaction, The Slow Professor, by Barbara Seeber and Maggie Berg.

A key facet of this transition is the repositioning of the student-as-learner to student-as-consumer. This, along with the pressure faced by universities to recruit ever higher numbers of students, is aptly summarized by Jack Stripling in a recent piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Using Louisiana State University’s opulent, man-made “lazy river” recreational pool as his example, Mr. Stripling writes: “The leaders of cash-strapped institutions feel obliged to service the whims and desires of tuition-paying students, whose satisfaction has become ever more crucial as state support wanes.”

The lazy river of the article is one in a series of incentives that, I argue, form part of the rising experience industry in higher education. This industry brings together a conglomeration of staff, services, resources, programs, initiatives and facilities designed to enhance the student experience and guarantee students’ satisfaction. The goal is to entice students to campus and keep them there. If students have a negative experience, they may leave the university early, depriving the institution of much-needed tuition. Even worse, they may make their negative experience public, influencing the choices of prospective and current students, thereby harming metrics of “student satisfaction.” It is therefore essential that the experience industry provides an exceptional, positive experience for its clients.

But what is a positive experience and how does it relate to education? Attending a sports game is an experience as are eating dinner, skydiving, driving a car, going to the doctor and floating down a lazy river. By contrast, university education seems easier to define. It involves formal learning and training through interaction with an expert in a subject area, otherwise known as a faculty member. The two are not mutually exclusive but they are also not interchangeable. You can have an experience without faculty members, but you cannot have an education without them.

The experience industry is typically found in university wings concerned with “student affairs,” “student services” or “student life,” and encompasses a broad range of services including recruiting, housing, dining, recreation, clubs, career centres, and health and wellness centres. At its best, the experience industry provides student with the support necessary for them to complete their education. At its worst, the industry proactively works to identify and remove obstacles that make students unhappy.

The shift away from an emphasis on education to experience has its direct parallel in the increase in size, scope, power and resourcing of this wing of the university. This is not to say that those who work in the area are nefarious or that they are trying to undermine the educational mission of their institutions. Far from it. In my own experience, the people in the experience industry are thoughtful, hardworking and genuinely care about students. However, and crucially, they are employed to provide students with a positive experience, just as I am employed to provide an education.

The problem with all this is that, in the current university environment, a student’s experience is being prioritized over their education. This yields short-term gain in the form of immediate student satisfaction and positive metrics, but long-term pain in a less well-educated and capable citizenry. Many of the problems associated with this shift have been addressed in the sources cited above and in the vast literature on contemporary higher education. Here, I want to stress a particular and paradoxical outcome of the emphasis on experience: that the experience industry may actually be contributing to the problems it purports to remedy.

Before students arrive on campus, they are told of the tremendous stress and pressure that awaits them in university and beyond. This is their first foray into adult life and, if they are to believe what they are told, the road is treacherous, and decisions made now will set the course of their lives. Add to this the repeated (and false) mantra of a “skills gap” in the workforce and the continued denigration of non-STEM degrees, and students arrive on campus primed for a stressful, uncertain future.

As part of the experience industry, the armada of staff and programs in place to combat this situation signals to students that the stress and treachery of the road ahead are very real. Why else would universities have lazy rivers, therapy dogs, 24-hour health and wellness centres, on-site medical and psychological staff, among an array of other services? Why else is a task force required to manage the first-year experience? To be sure, resources to help students in their education have been and should be an essential component of university; however, they increasingly play a leading rather than supporting role on campus.

The emphasis towards a positive experience takes another form as well. Once students arrive on campus, they are encouraged to join a host of clubs, teams, groups and activities to contribute to their overall university experience. Students are incentivized through things like passport programs, the promise of certificates, badges, credentials or even a co-curricular record which tallies a student’s non-academic activities into a dossier meant to supplement job applications.

The message from all this is clear: education is not enough. To truly separate yourself from the masses and to snag the elusive full-time job, you must build your experience profile. Your peers are doing it, they are doing more of it, and they are doing it better. You must do more. And if you find this stressful, avail yourself of the numerous resources on campus designed to ensure your positive experience. It’s an experience feedback loop.

This is the paradox: we know that contemporary students are reporting record-high rates of anxiety and depression, yet we continue to push and incentivize them to do more and more. This not only exacerbates stress and anxiety but deprives students of the thing that is essential for their education, maturation and growth, and which is uniquely available in university: time.

All learners need time to process information, to reflect, think and grow intellectually. Students consistently report being pressed for time and yet we push them to do more outside the classroom and stress the consequences if they do not. We need to re-establish education as the primary purpose of university and give students the time they need to learn. That would be a very positive experience.

Jonathan Finn is an associate professor in the department of communication studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.

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  1. Kate McGartland / March 14, 2018 at 12:06

    ‘You can have an experience without faculty members, but you cannot have an education without them.’ I respectfully, and whole-heartedly, disagree with this statement. The classroom is not the only place students learn on a university campus. Learning is personal and lifelong and one need not attend university in order to gain an education. It is elitist to think otherwise. Does a university degree come with certain privileges and access? Absolutely. But it is not the only place to gain an education.

    Ask a recent (or not so recent) grad to reflect on their time at university and many will talk about the moments that happened outside of the classroom. When I think back to my own university days, I remember the things that I was involved in, and how they equipped me to be a much better student and prepared me for a career in education and business. I don’t remember all of the classes I took, or the lectures I attended – save for a few that were taught by exceptional faculty members. One’s time at university is both educational and experiential. So why does this divide between the academic and administrative ‘wings of the university’ (as Finn calls them) exist? All it does is move us further away from the ultimate goal of our universities.

    Let’s be pragmatic. Education alone is not enough anymore. As a hiring manager receiving hundreds of applications for an entry-level job, the candidates that stand out are the ones that can relate their theoretical and practical experiences to the job they have applied for and articulate how they will apply that knowledge to the role. Traditionally, students have not learned how to do this in the classroom. It has been the tireless work of the ‘armada of staff’ from the ‘experience industry,’ that have encouraged students to connect the dots between what they’re learning in the classroom to all other aspects of their lives in order to articulate how their experience has contributed to their growth and development. I do not doubt that some faculty members also do this – and do it well – and that some student affairs practitioners are not as effective as others in this area, but it has been my experience that this type of learning and application has been the task of administrators.

    Also, remember that this so-called ‘experience industry’ is not external to the university. It is an integral part of the university and crucial to achieving the mission of the institution. To think that education and experience are mutually-exclusive is naive. Until we fully realize this, we will not be supporting students to the best of any of our abilities. We have a long way to go to bridge the gap between the academic and administrative sides of the university, and I do hope that this article will spur much needed conversation in this area. For too long we have talked about the divide that exists but have not done much (collectively) to improve it. I truly hope that this is a turning point. We are all responsible for making it better.

  2. Nancy Johnston / March 14, 2018 at 16:55

    It is disappointing to see two important aspects of learning, the classroom and the co-curricular environments and offerings, pitted against each other as if it is a zero sum game. The literature regarding the student experience (which is not the same as student satisfaction btw) clearly shows that with respect to impactful learning, what happens in the classroom matters a great deal as does what happens in the co-curricular realm. Those institutions that attend to both create the best learning environments, as they understand that learners are human, and that creating healthy, safe, welcoming environments offering both in and out of class opportunities and supports yield the best results.

  3. Rashed Al-Haque / March 15, 2018 at 00:29

    I too disagree with the opinion shared by Jonathan Finn and see problems pitting student experience against the educational mission of higher education. While I have seen institutions proudly advertise themselves as providing “the best student experience,” rarely have I seen institutions, in practice, prioritize experience over the quality of the education.

    I also echo the ideas shared by other commentators that learning happens in many forms, both in and outside the classroom and that a positive social environment facilitated by dedicated student affairs staff creates a positive learning environment.

    To that end, I’ll share a personal anecdote that will hopefully highlight how a positive student experience led to my academic success and opened up my career opportunities. I had the pleasure of attending Queen’s University, where I was heavily invested in student affairs, as part of its Residence Life staff. While I was happy with my studies, I was most passionate about issues related to students, namely student success, enhancing the quality of education, mental health initiatives, and first-year student transitions. These “extra-curricular” activities is what led me to which fields and pursue a Masters at Queen’s and later a PhD at Western University in the field of higher education policy. Opportunities outside my academics at Western gave me a sense of belonging, motivated me to continue my research and made me more passionate about my teaching responsibilities.

    While both universities promised the best student experience (Western, in fact, advertises itself as such) never, in either of the institutions, did I feel I was getting sub-par education. At the end of the day when it came to starting my career, it was my extra-curricular activities that I was able to leverage to get a mid-level administrator job right out of university at an higher education institution on the west coast. Clearly, both student experience and academics can go hand-in-hand and can lead to success in life afterwards.

    Reading the opinion piece, I sensed an underlying bias in the author’s writing. I encourage the author to be self-reflective and self-reflexive and ask why he feels as though student experience and academic are/should be mutually exclusive.

    • Jonathan Finn / March 15, 2018 at 09:41

      Thanks to the three commenters thus far for feedback. There is too much in each comment for a full reply but I do want to reiterate what I tried to make clear in the opinion piece. I did not say that education and experience are mutually-exclusive – in fact if you re-read the piece you will see that I explicitly say they are not. Nor did I say that student support, services and success are not important – of course they are! My concern is that, faced with a variety of real (ex. economic, demographic) and fictional (ex. skills gap, STEM) pressures, Universities are prioritizing experience over education. I too benefited from a broad range of extra-curricular experiences during my BA, MA and PhD and I advocate for my students to explore the many opportunities available to them at University. However, in our current climate I see a distinct push towards the University experience with less and less emphasis placed on formal education.

      Thanks again for the comments – it’s a useful discussion to have (so long as we end up re-establishing education as the primary mission of the university!)

  4. Philip Hultin / March 15, 2018 at 09:50

    I agree that the original article does create a zero-sum scenario that presents “experience” and “education” as opposed goals when they should not be. But perhaps there is some truth to Jonathan Finn’s argument even so.

    At my institution, many academics do perceive some aspects of the “student experience” as being pushed to the detriment of other aspects of the University. Resources are scarce, and unfortunately major initiatives for more counselling, or advising, or recreation often seem to conflict with less glamorous things like modernizing teaching spaces (lecture rooms, laboratories etc) or providing sufficient department-level administrative support to handle the constantly growing amount of paperwork being pushed onto academics.

    I for one am all in favour of providing a rich, supportive environment for mind, body and spirit on campus. It just seems that administrators who hold the purse strings have difficulty dealing with all three of these concepts at the same time. Only two at a time seems to be how things really work out in practice.

  5. Louis B. / March 15, 2018 at 10:18

    Very illuminating article! I have been somewhat distanced from academia sensu stricto for a number of years and have heard about a number of changes, but never considered it from the point of a paradigm shift (education to “experience”). This really is not surprising and follows the trend of nurturing self-entitlement and a Peter Pan complex in young adults.

    People complain that universities are becoming day cares for 20-year-olds, and who can argue against this in light of, “lazy rivers, therapy dogs, 24-hour health and wellness centres, on-site medical and psychological staff, among an array of other services”? We are teaching young adults to avoid stress at all costs, because of a growing pathological aversion to any form of stress that can tax our mental health. This will result in adults who lack the ability to adapt, compromise, compete, and work hard under adverse conditions or deadlines. This is detrimental to the individual, society, and species.

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