College À La Carte

In the age of the extra value meal there is something elegant about getting one sandwich. It is getting second nature to get the value meal as if it is the only option. The downside is that extra-value meals result in us consuming more than we need and we are getting fatter from it.

Try not getting a value meal at a drive-thru. It takes more time to look over the menu to figure out what you want. The choice combinations are difficult to sort out. Choice is not what it is cracked up to be since it takes more effort.

Barry Schwartz argues that too much choice creates a situation in which too much choice results in unhappiness. This is The Paradox of Choice. Having more options seems to give us more freedom, but that much freedom creates a situation where we are not sure if we made the right decision. We second-guess rather than enjoy what we have.

However, some kind of guidance to lessen the blow of being overwhelmed by options can help. I will go to Consumer Reports or read reviews of a product before I invest in it. I need a “nudge.” Having a little nudge in one direction helps to oil the rational machinery of choice. Of course, there are bad nudges from people who have unreasonable opinions. Do we agree with all the crappy reviews or good reviews a movie gets from critics? I will stand by my opinion that both Forrest Gump and The English Patient suck. Critics did not help me at all.

Enter education. We have plenty of nudges. The President wants a nudge of a ratings system to help consumer choice. US News and World Report has been a nudge for education consumers for years. We have Peterson’s guides, and now MOOC’s, all there to help us with our decision-making. Each institution nudges us with marketing departments in the spirit of competition.

So what if we removed all of that and let the students choose what they wanted? Interesting idea from David Roberts:

Cloud U students could define their own educational paths, deciding what and how they want to learn by purchasing individual courses via an iTunes-like portal, with formats ranging from large, multilayered affairs with online lectures, interactive tutorials and chat sessions to microclasses that would quickly teach very specific skills.

The idea isn’t new. The largest ground-shift in US higher education came at the close of the 19th century when Charles Eliot introduced the secular, elective curriculum at Harvard. It was a light form of a pick-your-own adventure experience which was unheard of before that point. That basic structure exists to this day. However, in recent decades, institutions have moved back to some form of core curriculum to ensure graduates are getting the same set of skills and knowledge with social science, philosophy, history, mathematics, etc.

Can we trust our youth and their families to make educational degree and learning decisions without the kind of direct interventions that an institution of higher learning provides?

It is not enough to let students go à la carte with their educational goals. The reason is simple: students and families don’t know well enough what kind of learning a student needs to design a program of study. Maybe in this area, the extra-value meal is not a bad thing and is actually a healthier option in the long run.

Students still need a nudge and a system that helps them to make choices that will affect their entire lives. We don’t purchase cars or houses one part at a time. Why would we let ourselves do the same with an investment as massive as education? Having someone with training to teach us how to create our learning isn’t much different from enrolling an engineer or architect.

For as much as higher education is challenged, we still come back to the conclusion that we still need it – and for good reason.

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One thought on “College À La Carte

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