Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Down With Freedom!

Students need institutions to tell them what to do.

That was the underlying theme of the GPS (Guided Pathways to Success) conference held by Complete College America yesterday in sweltering, hot, muggy, Orlando.  As with GPS devices, the idea is that much student attrition is due to them simply getting lost and wasting time and resources going down blind alleys.  If students can be provided much more direction, the argument goes, they’ll be likelier to get where they’re trying to go.

Fans of behavioral economics will recognize the impulse immediately.  Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice, opened by noting that when faced with too many options, people quickly become overwhelmed and effectively decide not to choose.  He cited a study in which some consumers were presented with thirty different brands of jelly to choose from, and others were only given four.  The group that was only given four choices wound up buying more jelly; the group given thirty mostly just walked away.  Faced with a situation in which there was no realistic way to make a choice that placed them safely beyond regret, they chose not to choose.

In the context of jelly, we can file that under “who cares?”  But in the context of matriculation, in which successful pursuit takes thousands of dollars and several years, choosing not to choose is a terrible option.  Schwartz emphasized that even though it may seem counterintuitive and even paternalistic, students are actually much more empowered by choosing among fewer and more carefully constructed options.  

The rest of the conference was devoted to variations on the theme.  In brief, factors that contribute to student completion include full-time status, tightly prescribed courses of study with a minimum of options, “rationalized” (that is, streamlined) general education requirements, intrusive advising, academic maps, and “meta-majors.”  In each case, the idea is to make the path obvious and clear, and to make the high-probability choice the easiest choice to make.

In fairness, most of these don’t involve mandates.  (Gen Ed requirements obviously do.)  To use Cass Sunstein’s word, the idea is to “nudge” students in a particular direction.  Tristan Denley, from Austin Peay University in Tennessee, made the idea concrete with a “recommendation engine” he had developed.  The idea was that the engine would crunch data based on student gpa and test scores, historical performance of similar students, and degree requirements for given majors, and would recommend courses tailored to each individual student.  (Denley noted that the engine does not look at race, gender, or age of student, in order to prevent feeding stereotypes.)  It’s sort of like when Netflix suggests a movie you might like, based on what you’ve seen and rated to that point.  As with Netflix, you’re free to override the suggestion, but people often find them helpful.  

In the case of course selection, the idea is to replace a panoply of options with a “default” option that is likeliest, statistically, to lead that student towards graduation.  At Austin Peay, they’ve identified “fingerprint” courses that they’ve found give students the strongest indication as to whether a particular major is for them; the recommendation engine finds those especially helpful.

The “meta-major” idea is a way to get around the morass of “undecided” students.  If a given student doesn’t know exactly what he wants, but he knows it’s likely to be something in the sciences, then he can be placed into a science meta-major that puts him on track to choose among the specific sciences without losing too much time.  As Denley put it, it helps categorize undecided students into one of several flavors.

I couldn’t help but notice how many of the GPS innovations were direct or indirect results of legislative mandates in various states.  That was especially clear in the context of “streamlining,” which could reasonably be expected to generate significant faculty pushback.  Although nobody explicitly made the connection, state mandates performed the same function for the colleges that the colleges have started performing for their students.  They provide powerful nudges in a given direction, with the goal of getting better results than the colleges (or students) would have achieved left to their own devices.  Americans aren’t known for our sense of irony, but this was a pretty good case.

(I was intrigued, too, by the CLIP program for ESL students at CUNY.  As I understand it, and I’m open to correction from readers who know it better than I do, it’s an intensive, one-semester immersion experience for students who need ESL instruction.  It’s non-credit, so it doesn’t consume students’ Pell eligibility, and the cost is mostly covered by New York State.  I’ll be looking into this one pretty closely.)

It’s easy to find fault with this particular reform or that one, but I have to admit finding the general idea compelling.  The entire premise of higher education is that students don’t know everything; if they did, they wouldn’t need higher education.  Professors have assigned readings and graded performance forever, and nobody thinks it odd.  So the objection that nudging is “paternalistic” strikes me as both true and irrelevant.  Education is paternalistic.  The relevant question is who, and how, the paternalism benefits.  And why the hell they picked Orlando in June.

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