I find the evolving cultural landscape of higher education fascinating. Tech blogs have focused on software as the primary mechanism of change in colleges and universities, but there are a few cultural phenomenon that are converging to cause a larger, more impactful disruption to the way we think about education. These revolve around the shifting relationship a school has with its students.

Remember “In loco parentis”? This was the idea that a school of higher education has a legal responsibility to act as a parent for a student. Philip Lee of Harvard University writes that “… until the 1960s, the in loco parentis doctrine allowed universities to exercise great discretion in developing the ‘character’ of their students without having to consider their student’s constitutional rights. The demise of this doctrine, particularly at public universities, forced courts to redefine the relationship of universities with their students.”

Courts may have redefined the legal relationship a university has with its students, but the university itself is still struggling to understand how to treat students. Are students actually consumers who are purchasing a product of education? Are students co-creators of their educational journey, and should be treated as peers to faculty? Are students subordinate to faculty? Are students simply a pesky distraction from making money at scale through research?

To craft a relationship with students, it’s useful to understand the types of students that go to college. Statistically, it’s not what you might think. “The National Center for Education Statistics reports that of the 17.6 million people enrolled in college in the fall of 2011, only 15 percent were attending a four-year college and living on campus. Thirty-seven percent were enrolled part time, and 32 percent worked full time. Forty-three percent were attending a two-year college. More than a third were over 25, and a quarter were over 30. By 2019, the percentage of those over 25 is expected to increase by more than 20 percent.”

We can get a more nuanced view of this “non-traditional student” through qualitative, ethnographic research. We spent time with a woman named Bernadette, who is 52 years old and studying Criminal Justice at a state school in Texas. Bernadette has been in and out of school her entire life, but because of persistent health issues, she has had trouble finishing a degree relevant for a career. She has gone to several college and programs in the Austin area, and has a large amount of debt as a result (she carries documentation of her financial aid in her purse with her). She has two associates degrees, grandchildren, a son in college, and has gone through a messy divorce. She’s not your idealistic 18 year old, and she’s not going to college for the “college experience” of football games and extracurricular activities. For her, higher education is a means to an end, an investment, a challenge, and a goal.

If Bernadette is entering into a market-based transaction, and is “buying an education”, then she has certain expectations about how the school will act. Just like when we buy phone service, we expect a certain level of service quality – we expect to “get our money’s worth.”

Bernadette is probably looking to have some say in what she’s learning and how she learns it. In some ways, she wants to be a co-creator with the school. She’s not going to want a boilerplate curriculum design – she’ll expect to have something more tailored to her wants, needs, and desires, and you can bet she’s interested in a justification for why things are structured as they are.

If the school expects Bernadette to be socially subordinate to the faculty, they’ll encounter push-back. Bernadette isn’t trying to be disrespectful, but the breadth and depth of her life experiences have validity, and she knows it. She’s not going to put up with doing things “just because she was told to” or “because it’s always been that way.”

And if the school treats Bernadette as a distraction from things like research or publishing, she’s going to vocalize her dissatisfaction, quickly and loudly.

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In my experience and as I’ve observed in our research, I’ve found that faculty typically forge positive, professional, supportive relationships with their students. They want students to succeed, and they recognize the crazy costs of education and the expectations students have about a return on their education. They may not agree with such a vocational view of academics, but they typically are aware of the massive debt students take on to attend college. What’s more, they recognize that they aren’t the parents of the students, and go out of their way to establish a non-paternal relationship with students of all ages.

The disconnect in forging a human and empathetic relationship with students seems to come from administration: from groups who are still operating under the “do what’s best for the students, in spite of the students” view of in loco parentis. Their administrative actions manifest as things like “free speech zones” or a surcharge on students who don’t graduate in time. These are policies that make sense if a student is something weak that needs to be protected, something that can’t fend for itself. But these policies don’t make much sense at all if students are viewed as empowered, free-thinking, autonomous actors. Universities need to understand that their student body has changed and will continue to change, and they must embrace the different expectations of this changing population. This will often mean giving up control and establishing a more service-based model of value delivery, where the students who benefit from education help structure their own learning experiences.

 

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