Published on 2012/07/09

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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Readers Comments

Quincy Bauer 2012/07/09 at 9:41 am

I honestly can’t say I agree with you here. To me, students are grouped into categories to ensure we interact with them correctly.

An in-class adult student has different wants and needs than an online student, both of whom have different needs from a traditional, residential 18-22 year old student.

It certainly makes life harder to accommodate for all these different groups, and it requires us to have a wide range of understanding in terms of needs and abilities, but I think it makes us better in the long-run to discern between all the different types of students on our campus

Suzanne 2012/07/09 at 12:38 pm

I cannot agree as well. All students are not the same and the more we understand their unique goals and needs, the more responsive we can be. The diversity of higher education students is amazing! But yes, there is a pecking order and many subgroups that are considered the “other” – if we work more effectively to understand and embrace this power dynamics of this diversity then we can as Cesar McDowell says, plan for the margins. This approach can ensure more broad based academic success.

Rhonda White 2012/07/09 at 8:02 pm

I agree with Mr. McClure, actually. I think we need to respect all students similarly in terms of their goals and their achievements. Some misguided people still treat it differently though, especially in the way it’s funded.

Non-traditional units don’t have the same funding as traditional campuses–not even close! I’ve heard of some extension units still doing registrations through excel sheets because they don’t have the funding to get a proper registration system! Of course the university functions as normal; specifically geared to the students they serve (adult, online, etc), but in terms of the way non-traditional learning is treated–it should be seen equally as the traditional campus. And it comes down to respecting the students who are in the program, and their goals.

Joe Beckmann 2012/07/17 at 10:15 am

In principle I agree with Mr. McClure, but the current decision by the University of Massachusetts’ School of Education to delegate grading and promotion of it’s pre-teachers to Pearson seems at odds with the warm, fuzzy, and collegial understanding of his missive. When a college abandons its responsibility to assess its own students with and by its own faculty, it critically undermines its own credibility – as well as the academic freedom on which its tenure is based.

Cynthia Sosnowski 2012/07/18 at 2:40 pm

I seems to me that the important point here is that we acknowledge the different services and institutional culture that an adult learner might need (admin offices open at night, waiving of some campus fees that might only apply to traditional students, commuter parking, advisors and professors that understand the impact of families, jobs, etc on scheduling) without using the common profile of adult learners to delegate them to 2nd class student status. I don’t think that Bill is implying we should pretend that adult students don’t have particular needs based on their profiles, just that we don’t want to fall into a trap of creating hierarchical statuses on campus such that a distinction originally meant to help provide services ends up prejudicing a system against adult learners.

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