A Qualitative Study on the Impact of the Collegiate Student Binary Function as Consumer and Product at Private Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Date of Award

Fall 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)

Committee Chair

Beverly Smith

Committee Member

Jeffrey Ferezan

Committee Member

Bora Pajo


This dissertation studies how institutions of higher education occupy a unique space that can add to the discourse of business studies by relating how consumers can simultaneously function as products. This is substantiated by defining the word “student” beyond the traditional meaning of a student as learner when considering the higher education business model. As such, the student as defined in this research co-exists as both consumer and product, shifting institutional culture and power dynamics while influencing senior-leadership decision-making. Given current research on the topic shows a one-sided view, concentrating on students as consumers rather than products or both, this study addresses gaps in the current research, with a focus on how the concept of higher education has not only two products (the curriculum and the student), but also two consumers (the student and the corporate structure who seeks to employ graduates at the lowest value, but the most productivity). A further gap in the research that served to benefit this study considered low-resourced, minority serving institutions with business models that depend on student enrollment, particularly Full-Time Equivalencies (FTE), to meet institutional budget constraints. Such a definition of the student binary that exists at tuition-driven, mission focused institutions create challenges that exist with accommodating and somewhat acquiescing to student socio-economic needs, organizational behavior, and institutional culture. Thus, using grounded theory, this qualitative study identifies semiotics as a business practice that not only creates symbolic meaning of the word “student”, but also identifies how that definition shifts depending on function, influencing the institutional power structure and decision-making practices of institutional leadership particularly at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). In particular, this study used a sample of nine senior-level administrators at the 37 small, private HBCUs under the UNCF umbrella to determine how leadership redefines the student as an economic binary that influences and sustains the financial business model at these institutions.