The ruling this week that Northwestern University must treat scholarship football players as employees defies the way colleges view themselves, and has administrators nationwide wondering if this is the first step toward turning college sports into something unrecognizable.

But in one key sense, the decision by an official of the National Labor Relations Board, which will allow the players to form a union and bargain collectively, fits into a long and familiar trend: Higher education is today less a rite of passage in which institutions serve in loco parentis, and more a commercial transaction between school and student.

Graduate students are forming unions, or trying to, at a growing number of universities. The new vogue in college ratings compares them by graduates’ incomes, and publications are full of debate about the price and value of college. Bookstores carry shelves of volumes on wringing more aid from schools and maximizing return on investment.


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