February 23, 2024

Economix: The Dark Side of Choice in Higher Education

College catalogs are typically organized like phone books, making it hard for students to identify and compare courses and programs. br /“/span class=College catalogs are typically organized like phone books, making it hard for students to identify and compare courses and programs.

Today's Economist

Judith Scott-Clayton is an assistant professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Last week, writing on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, Susan Engel described a small-scale experiment giving high school students greater choice and flexibility over their education. In what was christened the Independent Project, eight students in western Massachusetts designed their own “school within a school,” in which they wrote and then followed their own curriculum.

The project was meant to counter the traditional, highly structured high school experience, which, Ms. Engel argued, “doesn’t just fail to prepare teenagers for graduation or for college academics; it fails to prepare them, in a profound way, for adult life.”

The essay caught my eye because a growing contingent in higher education has begun to worry about just the opposite concern: that college students may have too much choice and flexibility.

So while Ms. Engel suggests that high schools ought to provide more of the freedoms of college, others are suggesting that perhaps colleges ought to provide more of the structure of high school.

Usually, we think of choice as a good thing – in fact, classical economic theory implies it can never be a bad thing. Besides Ms. Engel’s argument that choice strengthens students’ intrinsic motivation to learn, it also enables students with increasingly diverse backgrounds, preparation, interests and constraints to tailor their educational experiences individually.

Work by psychologists and behavioral economists, however, demonstrates the dark side of too much choice. Cognitive overload, poorly defined preferences and imperfect self-control can lead to procrastination, decision mistakes and dissatisfaction with the choice that is ultimately made.

Students trying to choose the right courses, for example, may find it prohibitively time-consuming just to acquire all of the relevant information on long-term costs and benefits. Or they may be unsure about what they want to do this semester, let alone the rest of their lives.

Once decisions are made, they may struggle to follow through and may remain doubtful about whether they made the best choice. The result may be that some underprepared college students delay enrollment, select their courses poorly, fail to meet requirements for graduation or a major, or drop out altogether when they encounter an unexpected obstacle.

Stan Jones, the president of Complete College America, has asserted that for too many students, too much choice and flexibility provides little more than the freedom to fail. Mr. Jones has advocated a reduction in program options, more structure regarding the choices that remain and more intensive but shorter time frames for degree completion.

The new community college that I mentioned in a previous post (and which was formally approved by the City University of New York’s trustees just a few weeks ago) is being built on this idea – that highly structured, less flexible degree programs may improve completion rates, particularly for underprepared students.

Unlike a typical community college, the new institution will require full-time enrollment and will offer only 12 majors, building off a common first-year curriculum. Remedial instruction, extra math and applied work experiences will not be optional but will be integrated into the curriculum.

Restricting students’ options outright, however, is a rather extreme solution to the choice problems described above.

Innovative technology and marketing strategies might be able to nudge students toward better decisions without limiting their freedom to choose. For example, it would be much easier for students to identify and compare relevant courses if academic catalogs were less like phone books and more like, say, Netflix.

Then students could interactively search and browse on dimensions like course subject, timing, difficulty, prerequisites, major requirements or instructor ratings. Over time, students could be offered personalized suggestions based on their previous choices. New students could even be offered the equivalent of a prix fixe menu, offering a limited selection of prepackaged pathways while still allowing students to choose à la carte.

Colleges could also help students navigate their options by providing more frequent and better advising, rather than waiting for students to ask for help. Results from a recent randomized experiment suggest that academic coaches may significantly improve student persistence (this study was discussed on The Choice blog last week).

Ultimately, an abundance of choice is what makes college attractive and feasible for many students. It’s what makes college different from high school and more like adult life.

But just as colleges are beginning to acknowledge the dark side of choice, eventually so will high schools, if they want to experiment with their own versions of the Independent Project.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=96a36405c2ef994278f6f08db333414f

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