Friday, April 01, 2011


The Dark Side of Choice

An alert reader sent me a link to this article that suggests that too much choice (of courses and programs) for students can be paralyzing. Taken farther, it suggests that one way to improve graduation rates would be to run fewer programs.

I actually agree with this.

Many public colleges and universities have embraced “comprehensiveness” as part of their “access” mission. The idea is that part of “access” is access to whatever program the student wants. Whether that program is liberal arts transfer, culinary arts, or auto repair, the college is presumed to be on the hook to provide it. I’m increasingly skeptical, though not for the traditional reason.

In olden times, I’m told, there existed in the land a strange breed called “professional students.” They could be identified by their distinctive markings -- tie-dye, mostly -- and vague smell of weed. They stayed in college forever, ekeing out meager livings and never confronting the real world. They accomplished this by changing majors a half-dozen times or more, thereby forestalling graduation. Some have also suggested that forestalling draft eligibility may have had something to do with it.

Several decades of tuition inflation and erosion in the minimum wage have threatened the natural habitat of the professional student, driving them nearly to extinction. So that downside of comprehensiveness has become largely moot. Now, when students stick around for a long time, it’s usually because they’re attending part-time and working close to full-time. In my own dealings with students, I can attest that I hear much more of “how can I graduate faster?” than “how can I stick around longer?” They’re much more interested in getting jobs than in staying on campus forever.

No, my objection is based on quality control, cost, and what for lack of a better term I’ll call student cluelessness.

I consider quality control and cost closely related. The more you have to water down a program, the more risk you’re taking with the quality of delivery. When a program is a little bit better than it has to be -- what I call “excellence,” or skeptics might call “waste” -- then in good times it can take risks, and in bad times it can make some sacrifices and still do right by its students. But when a program is already running dangerously lean, any cut of any magnitude will do real harm. (Even in good times, it won’t have the resources to experiment, and thereby to improve.) Too much efficiency at what you do now can actually prevent improvement, since there’s no room for the mistakes that are part of the learning curve.

There’s also an issue of blind spots. We all have them. A program with only one, or even two, full-time faculty in it is likely to have significant blind spots in its discipline. I’d be shocked if it didn’t.

All else being equal, a college of, say, 5000 students can probably do a better job of supporting twenty programs than it could of supporting fifty. Absent unique program-based funding, the larger number of programs means that each program gets fewer faculty and fewer resources. Each one runs leaner. That means each one has more blind spots than it should, less room to experiment than it should, and more adjuncts than it should.

Student cluelessness is the other objection. As programs multiply and the distinctions become finer-grained, students are less able to make intelligent decisions among them. Since each program has its own unique requirements and chains of prereqs, guessing wrong can put a student out of sequence and make completion more difficult. Yes, good individual advisement can reduce the incidences of that, but complexity inevitably breeds confusion.

At the two-year level, there’s also a basic issue of the degree of specialization that should really be expected. Outside of a few very prescriptive vocational programs, like Nursing, most of the degree programs tend to be heavy on the gen ed. Everybody has so many credits of humanities, social science, math, and the like to cover, so there’s only so much room for specialized coursework. Slicing that remainder of credits ever thinner seems likely to lead to diminishing returns.

Obviously, I’d rather have enough resources to be able to do everything well. That would be nifty. But in the absence of that, I’m increasingly convinced that it’s better to do fewer programs and do them well then to try to keep doing everything with less.

What do you think?

Thinking by the college and by the administration and management,is brilliant and also for the students they are doing some great sort of the stuff,the thing that you told on the students can probably do a better job of supporting twenty programs,so this is a fantastic facility and the students will be facilitated and be satisfied with all these.
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This sounds great in theory, but how would one determine which programs to focus on? At my undergrad SLAC, they've recently moved to focus on the "true" liberal arts, meaning anything vocation-oriented gets cut, like teaching certification, pre-med, and even pre-law. At the rural CC I take some courses at, they're moving to be more vocation-focused, cutting basic writing, language and humanities courses a lot of students take in order to transfer to 4 year institutions. In a big metro area I can see focus being a plus, where students have a lot of (school) options to choose from, but in a more isolated area it could limit students' ability to move on.
1) Isn't advising a key criteria for this question? Schools where good, thorough advising is expected can deal with complex programs. On the other hand, schools with less advising suffer.

2) I second Eileen's point about geography. Many 17-year olds choose schools for where it is, not what programs are strong (especially public schools, I'd bet). Telling them to switch schools later is much more difficult than telling them to switch programs.
The flipside of cutting/reducing programs at some schools is to stop creating new programs/degrees/diplomas/etc. As I think has been stated on this blog before, these programs can be very difficult to remove once they've been around for even a short while, and it can just confuse students even more: "I could do a degree in a traditional program, or I could specialize in $NEW_PROGRAM, which is similar to the traditional but has fewer math courses."

Making this even tougher is that even if newer programs are appealing, no one (literally) knows how they will be in the long term with respect to employment and reputation with employers/other schools until a few cohorts of students have actually completed the program.
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From what I've seen in the psychology literature, choice is a Goldilocks thing. You want a little bit, but not too much.
Of course, learning to cut down a huge number of options to a manageable number of options might well be considered a key life skill, given the world we live in.

All in all, I can't help wishing there were more Cooper Unions out there. Three programs, all free. If you had to pick three programs your college offers, and let those be the *only* things, and you knew you'd get the funding to be able to offer them tuition-free, what would you choose and why?
At the two year level, I regularly see students who are confused by the options we have for our gen-ed requirements. Heck, there must be faculty advisors who are confused by them! It is worst when there are mutually exclusive sequences that lack pre-requisite sequencing, because students can take a combination of courses that don't meet the graduation requirement.

The biggest problem is that the students who are most at risk (the writing sample by the spammer posting at 3:34 AM would by typical) are the ones who really need structure in their curriculum, but we offer them as much flexibility as we do an honor's student.
At my CC, program creation and development are ruled by articulation agreements unles the program is meant to be terminal. In other words, if the 25 or so schools to which our students most often transfer don't know what to do with a program, it probably won't make it through the curriculum approval process. We are a "comprehensive" CC, but articulation agreements, program enrollments and new registrations, along with regular communication with our top 25 transfer schools determine whether programs continue to exist. I am surprised DD did not mention transfer and articulation agreements when discussing this subject.

For terminal programs, however, we expererience problems similar to what DD describes; that is, maybe too many similar programs, not enough feedback from local employers on whether students find work after completion, unclear numbers concerning supply and demand and, despite being institutionally pretty good at advisement, conficting and confusing messages to students.
Another problem I've noticed is that at some schools, it is easier to get start-up and program building money & support for new programs, than it is to get revitalization support or maintenance funding for existing programs. In one department I know, they created a new off-shoot program (tangential to existing majors, with a catchy name, but otherwise not all that revolutionary) and were able to successfully argue for a couple of tenure lines to go with it since it is "new." They also were able to show explosive growth in enrollments in the first few years, resulting in additional funds from the college. (When your baseline is "zero students," then even a few majors make you look like a rock star, in percentage terms.) And they were able to apply for all sorts of special "dean's award" and "president's challenge" monies, for which only new programs that match up with some administrator's pet projects (as this one did) were eligible.

The money the new program garnered (and the tenure lines) end up supporting the department's traditional program as well, which is still far bigger, but which isn't the campus darling because it isn't "new."

Of course nobody mentioned that a good portion of the new majors were students who were otherwise planning to major/minor in the existing program already.

This is all wrong, for sure, but given the nature of the departmental funding process, folks play these games all the time just to get the funds and staffing levels the departments need to function. Talk about perverse incentives.
Out of curiosity, how do you reconcile this issue with your post earlier this week about people from the state desiring that new programs get "put through governance" with great speed in order to serve a perceived immediate need? It strikes me that your query to readers in that post and your query in this one are sort of at cross-purposes. I'm not sure that speeding up the process that governs curriculum assists in giving students transparent, clear, and easy-to-navigate choices. So, the question for me then becomes: what matters most? Students or the community?

I know that my answer to that is students, and so I'd say that a deliberate, faculty-driven curriculum, is a Good Thing. Perhaps this is an argument to make to those folks from the state who want New Programs Right Freaking Now?
Summer term is outrageous at my mid-size state liberal arts university. We offer eight different summer terms: some are 4-week, some 5, some six, some eight, some start in May, or early June, mid-June, July. Scheduling is a nightmare, and students are so spread out that many sections fail to make, disappointing faculty and students alike. Trying to accommodate everyone results in annoying everyone. I wish we would go back to one (or two) summer terms--take it or leave it.
From the consumer's point of view (student or parent), an additional choice is whether to go for a certificate or a degree in a field, or whether the degree ought to lead to transfer or not. Example: the horticulture program at our CC. I'm sure there is a demand for the certificate holders. Also probably at least some of the AA grads. But whether or not it makes sense to transfer to a (far away, expensie) 4-year program is a mystery.
Why it is that there are students who just take everything for granted in terms of education? They must prior the so called life in the future. Through the essence of education, they will have the idea and thought of what was life soon after school. Students are thought to model and enhance potentials.
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