This sounds like a pretty easy question, but as it turns out, the answer is anything but. Last week’s NLRB decision adds even more complexity to the question.

Are They Employees?

The National Labor Relations Board says “yes,” which also allows Northwestern players to form a union. The university argues instead that the players are student-athletes. Appeals will probably keep the issue undecided for a while, but the ruling is a serious challenge to the hybrid metaphor underlying “student-athlete.

Are They Customers?

Jon Boecksenstedt says no. In Sorry, everyone: Students are not customers, he details the many ways “buying” a college education is not at all like buying a car. He suggests “member” as a better word: universities have the power to admit and the power to expect appropriate progress and behavior; members can also expect appropriate treatment (like good customer service) and to receive something of value as a benefit of membership. On the other hand, I wonder if we really want to promote the metaphor of higher education as an exclusive club….

Are They Your Product?

Please, just say “no”.

Are They Change Agents?

Last week, our own Bob Sevier wrote about disruption in higher education. The source, he says, is students. He explains that as students reject the status quo, institutions are forced to innovate, in everything from technology to course delivery, and from costs to the content and structure of degrees. This might lead us back to the objections Boeckenstedt raised about “customer,” however. If students come to us precisely because they don’t know enough (hence could never be well-informed “customers”), then should they really be the ones redesigning higher ed?

Are They Adults?

You may think you know the answer to this one. “Yes,” you say, “We serve adult, nontraditional students.” Or, “No, we recruit traditional, first-time students.” Yet you might be wrong. According to Merriam-Webster, the first meaning of “adult” is “fully developed and mature.” “Adult students” self-identify as needing further development, so have they renounced their adult status? And, if you think your traditional students aren’t adults, remember that most of their time spent with you will be as legal adults—able to enter contracts, unionize, marry, and so on. Everything but drink… but I digress.

All of the Above

Student. Customer. Product. Member. Disrupter. Student Athlete. Employee. Adult. However you slice it, disrupter seems indisputable. As Bob said, students are chipping away at the pillars of the traditional higher ed paradigm. The question may be: who will they be when we’ve re-invented higher ed? Institutions that stay malleable and seek new answers give themselves the chance to define what “student” means a generation from now.

Finding out who your students really are, and what motivates them is central not only to serving them well, but in helping assure your own institutional viability.

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