The Explosion in Choice in Higher Education has a Downside for Students
Thoughtful choice architecture can help
Technology is driving innovation across every aspect of education — from delivery to modality — and its increasingly global nature means there have never been more options for learners than there are today. For students seeking a higher education degree in Europe in 2009, there were only 55 English-taught bachelor degree programs to choose from across the 19 countries representing the European Higher Education Area. By 2017, this figure had ballooned to 3,000 and was growing globally. In 2021, StudyPortals identified 28,874 English-taught bachelor degree programs being taught outside of the ‘big four’ English-speaking study destinations of the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and Canada — representing a 77% increase from four years prior. Today, StudyPortals lists nearly 70,000 English-taught bachelor’s degree programs worldwide on its platform.
With the astounding number of choices available, you might expect students to find it easier to tailor their post-secondary planning efforts to their needs and preferences, but in fact the reverse is true. As the number of choices grows, choosing becomes more difficult. And the gnawing sense that they may not have chosen as well as they could have can reduce a student’s sense of satisfaction. This is the phenomenon psychologist Barry Schwartz explored in his landmark book, The Paradox of Choice, which highlights how choice overload can make individuals second-guess decisions, set unrealistically high expectations, and create additional stress and anxiety in the decision-making process. And I’ve seen it play out in my work providing high schools in 140 countries with a college and careers guidance platform that students use to discover and apply to universities globally. Rather than feeling empowered by the increasing range of options before them, many students can feel defeated and overwhelmed.
Education leaders have a responsibility to the learners we serve to help them navigate those choices, focusing on what will best set them up for success. This requires consideration of choice architecture — organizing the context in which students and learners make decisions. A concept popularized by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein’s book Nudge, choice architecture — the ways in which choices are presented — can have a profound impact on what the decision maker chooses and how they feel about their decision. Choice architecture plays into how universities offer course selection, course planning, major design — in fact, virtually every aspect of the learning experience — which in turn can significantly affect students’ decision making. By carefully designing choice architecture, we can help students make choices that better support their future success and leave them less overwhelmed by the decision-making process. Following are approaches education leaders should consider in thoughtful choice architecture design.
Matching versus filtering
Typical choice architecture in education asks students searching for a university program to exclude huge swaths of options step by step to narrow down their choices. For example, if a student says they’d rather go to college in the U.K. than in the U.S., filtering programs will eliminate all U.S. institutions. If a student says they’d rather go to a college with 5,000 undergraduates than with 20,000 undergraduates, large universities are eliminated.
There are two problems with this filter-based approach. Firstly, students — particularly 16- to 17-year-olds tasked with making significant life decisions — often don’t have the knowledge and experience to know what they don’t know. Applying a hard line filtering approach may eliminate options that could ultimately be better suited for them. Second, with this type of choice architecture every preference is given equal weight, when in reality, while some preferences may be deal breakers, others are less significant.
Rather than working off students’ preconceptions, a better approach would be to extract from them what they really want, and how much each choice variable matters to them, then provide guidance based on this insight. Consider instead a matching paradigm that asks different kinds of questions that each provide greater insight into a student’s goals and motivations. For example, instead of asking a student to choose among a range of student populations, perhaps ask whether the student prefers the comfort of seeing familiar faces every day, or whether they are energized by always meeting new people. A matching paradigm also weights preferences and uses the results to create a more holistic student profile. From there, it’s possible to present a tailored set of options that most closely match the student profile.
Tailor the experience by persona
This may seem obvious, but it’s important to remember that not all students are the same. Some students are highly motivated and self-directed, thoroughly researching choices on their own, while others have only a vague idea of what they’re looking for. The choice architecture that is perfect for one type of student may frustrate the other. Creating different choice architectures that account for different student personas will ensure that the options and guidance provided are better aligned to each student’s motivational level and style.
Tie choices to outcomes
A simple way to improve almost any choice architecture is to showcase the likely outcomes associated with various options. Say a college student has to choose between two electives, each of which would satisfy their degree requirement. Effective choice architecture would explain the different paths those electives might open up down the road. If Experimental Drawing is more useful to students committed to a career in fine arts, and Introduction to Printmaking will cover design concepts essential to commercial work, the student should have that information and incorporate it into their decision.
My experience is primarily in empowering secondary schools with the guidance infrastructure to support their students with the transition between high school and college, but these principles could apply to any moment of decision in the educational learning journey. Colleges can use smart choice architecture in their own advisor infrastructures: developing a detailed picture of each student and providing proactive, outcome-oriented guidance to help students choose a major, choose a concentration or decide whether to pursue particular internship opportunities. Likewise, employers could use this kind of choice architecture to recommend development opportunities to employees and to empower them with an understanding of where those opportunities might lead.
Choice should be empowering, not overwhelming. By employing smart choice architectures, educators and employers can help make that the case.
Lucy Stonehill is co-founder and CEO of BridgeU, a Kaplan-owned company that offers a guidance platform which connects universities with international secondary schools in 130+ countries.