If you have been around higher ed for long you have been through the debate about whether we should think about students as customers. The debate (like most on-going topics) usually provides more heat than light.
But I've been thinking about that metaphor as I have spent time in the past few months working with students who have gotten cross-wise with the college (be it because of academic dishonesty, grade disputes, or any of the myriad other ways that students and campuses have a falling out).
In these instances, the student as customer metaphor just doesn't work. It doesn't imply the sort of commitment on the part of either the student or the campus that makes it possible for the parties to work out their difficulties. Other typical metaphors aren't any better. Thinking of students as learners runs aground because most of the disputes are about the failure of students (or their teachers) to achieve learning. For this reason, thinking about students solely as learners ends up in a determination that one party or the other has failed--hardly the sort of outcome that leads to a solution (as opposed to a resolution) of the problem.
So I have turned increasingly to thinking about students as employees. (Perhaps it is a sign that working with the Gore School of Business has influenced my orientation to education. (Not a bad thing at all, in my view.)) On the surface this is a stupid metaphor, since students pay us to go to college, not the other way around. But the student as employee metaphor is an old way to think about education--it is the apprenticeship model of education for an apprentice-less age. And given that at most institutions, student tuition doesn't cover the full costs of educating the student, it isn't far fetched to consider that the institution (or the state's) investment in the student's learning enables us to think that students work for the college and its funders as much as we work for them.
Thinking about a struggling student as an employee forces us to consider what we can do to both raise the quality of his/her work and to fix our own problems. (At least at businesses with a quality employee development program this is exactly how they think about their relationship with employees.) It implies a long-term commitment (interestingly, the median time to graduation and the median time at a certain employer is about the same). And thinking about them as employees requires us to consider where they fit best in an organization, moving them around until we get the best use of their talents and they make the biggest contribution, and ensuring that opportunities for growth are available to all of them.
All of these things--raising the quality of the student's work and the institution's work, making a long-term commitment to their well-being, and finding the right place for them--happen to be hallmarks of good student development practice as well. So perhaps by borrowing a metaphor from the business world we can strengthen the practices of colleges and universities that are already aligned with getting the best out of a student by giving that student our best in return.