Why can’t students just be students?

This conversation came up many times over the years when I was working on the inside of higher ed. It would usually have a prompt like one of these:

“Are students customers?” or “What shall we call our students?” or “Should we treat our students as customers or as _______ (fill in blank)?”

Recently I engaged in a discussion forum on Linked In where the thread was started with this question: “Why is it that Higher Education … Universities … continually fail to acknowledge that students are customers?” Sorry, no link to share since that forum is locked unless you’re a member of the Inside Higher Ed group.

I know that what I’m about to say is an incredibly wacky, totally nutty, and mostly bizarre suggestion, but how about this …

wait for it …

How about we call them “students?”

Crazy talk, I know. Apparently (for most people), that word just isn’t descriptive enough. We MUST call them something else. But why is that, exactly?

  • Doctors have their patients (but they should call them customers, right?).
  • Consultants have their clients (but they should call them customers).
  • I.T. staffs and drug dealers have their users (and they could call them customers).
  • Football teams have their fans (most certainly they are customers, right?).
  • Libraries have their patrons (except, of course, college libraries, who should call them customers).
  • Governments have their taxpayers (you certainly wouldn’t want to be a customer of the govt, would you?).
  • Restaurants and hotels have their guests (never mind that their “guests” have to pay).
  • Publishers have their subscribers (people willing to commit to being long-term customers).
  • Co-ops have their members (who might never actually cooperate except by buying stuff).
  • Landlords have renters or tenants (but we really should start calling them customers).
  • Taxis and airlines and such have passengers (who are clearly customers).
  • and of course I could keep going with this (see dead horse here).

Is there something not fulfilling enough about the word “students?” Does it confuse people and thus we need a new word? Does it not allow us to compare our students with the “customers/clients/patients/fill in the blank” that people deal with in other walks of life?  How would that be important?

Even more importantly, if the whole world decided to call students something other than students, would that really change the relationship between those of us who work in education and those (students) who come to us for an education?

I certainly hope not. In fact, by calling them students, then we (all of us, collectively) get to decide what it means to provide “student service” rather than “customer service.”  The key points are related to how educators interact with students during the educational process – not what we call them.

I would say this:

  • When people are sitting in our classrooms, they are students.
  • When they are shopping in the campus bookstore, they are customers.
  • When they are visiting with the prof during office hours, they are students.
  • When they are talking with the college counselor about a personal problem, they are clients.
  • When they are registering for classes for the next term, they are students.
  • When they are screaming at the college football (I mean hockey) game, they are fans.
  • When they are borrowing a book from the college library, they are patrons.
  • When they are writing a term paper, they are students.
  • and of course I could keep going with this (see dead horse here).

Seriously, what the hell is wrong with the word “STUDENTS?”

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