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?