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Whose Students Are They, Anyway?

With all the labels placed on non-traditional students in higher education, it’s important for administrators (especially in continuing education units) to remember that they—like traditional learners—fall under the umbrella of “university student”. Photo by Joe Shlabotnik.

With the rapid growth in higher education continuing education programs, especially online, the number of students, in-turn, is growing too. It seems that this is causing an interesting identity issue for these students as well as for the university. Whose label, brand, moniker should be placed on these ‘other’ students?

The use of term “continuing education (CE) student” seems to be the most common term applied to these ‘other’ university students. They might come to the campus, they could be in online courses, they might never see the campus, but they could be in the same courses as the ‘traditional’ university students. Complicated isn’t it? My sense is that those of us working in the CE field of higher education better understand this potential dilemma—everyone else could be confused.

If these ‘other’ students are enrolled in online courses, why not call them “online students”? It is descriptive of how they’re taking the course. But what if they are also an adult student? Should the term change to “adult online student”? More complicated!

Senior university administrators like to have names or terms that more specifically define students, especially if they are not traditional, residential ones. But what should that name be and should it confuse the basic university brand?

The scenarios become more complex as one looks at the wide range of students who participate in CE programs. Should we differentiate ‘under-graduate students’ and ‘graduate students’? What about evening or weekend students? It becomes more convoluted when departments or individual colleges are involved: ‘archaeology student’ or ‘business school student’. Of course there are increasing permutations that reach the absurd: “online, adult, graduate, school of business student”. You probably see where I’m going with this discussion! Would we want to sort students into blue or brown eyes, tall or short, rich or poor, east or west coast??

All of the students who participate in all of the CE programs as well as all of the traditional/residential students are “University Students”. Students should not be broken into sub-sets and/or categories that could create a hierarchy of students. Students are students! The brand that reflects the students is the University’s and not another.

All students have various roles, goals, and purposes within the University which enables it to be a multi-purpose and functional organization that gathers together many resources to meet student’s needs. Just like all university courses are university courses, all university students are university students. In addition, ‘University Student’ preserves the basic brand name of the University and doesn’t sub-divide the name into subsections that might be perceived as either elite or a ‘second-class-citizen’. The brand is important and a lot of marketing resources support it. Again for emphasis… all university students are university students!

This all might seem to be apparent, but… take a look at your university. Have the categories of students proliferated and some type of ‘pecking order’ been created? From the view of CE, let’s take the lead to assure that our students are ‘university students’.

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