October 4, 2012, by Sean Matthews

Post-Purchase Dissonance and the Higher Education ‘Product’

The research literature on ‘Buyer Behaviour’, particularly in marketing studies, consistently draws attention to the whole buying process rather than just the moment of purchase decision. The function of marketing is to ‘prepare’ the buyer for the purchase, by informing or educating about choices, and steering towards the vendor’s own product.

Once the product is purchased, however, the buyer’s relation to that product, during its ‘lifetime’, is just as important. If the buyer is happy, then the buyer becomes a potential returning customer, and indeed a potential promoter of the product. If, however, the buyer becomes disappointed with the product, then they may return it, complain, or dissuade other buyers. This situation is termed ‘post-purchase dissonance’: the product does not satisfy the criteria which, in many cases, the vendor themselves suggested or provided to the buyer. Taking this longitudinal or lifetime sense of the buying experience into account necessitates important recalibration of the Core/Supporting/Facilitating model which tends to dominate our thinking about Higher Education provision.

For Higher Education the problem of ‘post-purchase dissonance’ is complicated by three factors:

  • there is no single buyer or consumer of the product;
  • student as buyer/consumer values and expectations necessarily change during the degree programme (as a function of their very engagement with the product);
  • potential for ‘post-purchase dissonance’ in graduate/alumni life is particularly strong.

Let us consider each of these factors. First, it is not always clear who are the buyers and consumers. We might think in terms of three more or less equal ‘purchase partners’. The role involves any or all of the following: a scholarship awarding body (governmental or philanthropic); parents or family of the student; the students themselves. Each of these buyers is influenced by different pre-purchase criteria and motivations. Throughout the process of buying, and then within the degree programme, and even in the period after the end of the programme, these three parties will interact with each other, with different – even contradictory – priorities  and expectations coming to the fore.

Second, the experience of ‘post-purchase dissonance’ will be differentially experienced by each of these three partners. The criteria of the first two are, arguably, unlikely to change significantly (except in the case, for instance, of a student loan company), and they will judge the ‘product’ in line with what they thought they were buying at the outset. In contrast, the student’s experience of the product, which means at once the whole lifetime of the degree programme and to any particular moment within that lifecycle, involves significant and ongoing changes to those initial criteria. Students compare their experience with that of other students in the same and different institutions; they become more sophisticated in their understanding of the education process (an ironic result of the ‘purchase’ itself); and – in the case of international students particularly – they come to define their purchase much more in terms of the total student experience, rather than in terms of the ‘core’ elements privileged in the marketing literature (high quality teaching; recognized Quality Assurance and accreditation; enhanced job prospects and status). Again, this is an area to explore further, and the interactions between the three ‘purchase partners’ will also have a significant impact on the shifting sense of what is core and what is supporting/facilitating.

Third, there is a further and crucial element of the lifetime of the educational product. Higher Education is routinely marketed as the pathway to better job prospects and a better career. Particularly in the highly marketised contemporary environment, many buyers (in all three categories) prioritise this element of the purchase, and are more and more demanding of evidence to support the vendor’s claims. It is only, however, after the degree that it will be possible properly to assess this product value. It is therefore in the (hopefully) long lifetime as a graduate, as an alumni, that the greatest danger of ‘post-purchase dissonance’ arises. Without sustainable structures for career advice and support, and alumni networks for mutual care and advancement, the risk of disappointment and negative reputational impact is significant.

So what should we do? In the second part of this discussion we’ll look at one way of thinking about ‘student experience’ that begins to respond to these challenges.

Dr Sean Matthews is currently seconded from The University of Nottingham, UK as Director of Studies in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. With Professor Christine Ennew, he coordinates the Knowledge Without Borders Network.

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