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Can Better "Choice Architecture" Improve College Completion Rates?

by Judith Scott-Clayton - February 23, 2011

Many factors contribute to high college dropout rates, including poor academic preparation and insufficient financial supports. One potentially contributing factor, however, has received far less attention: that students may be overwhelmed by the very flexibility and choice that are the hallmarks of U.S. higher education. This commentary describes how choice overload can lead to mistakes, procrastination, and dissatisfaction as students attempt to navigate their way through college, and discusses potential solutions.

Out of 100 first-time degree-seeking students entering a public two- or four-year college, only 48 will complete any degree or certificate within six years (U.S. Department of Education, 2011). Many factors contribute to high dropout rates, including poor academic preparation and insufficient financial supports. One potentially contributing factor, however, has received far less attention: that students may be overwhelmed by the very flexibility and choice that are the hallmarks of U.S. higher education.  

Prospective undergraduates have more postsecondary options in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. Our higher education landscape includes public and private, non-profit and for-profit institutions, offering a range of credentials from certificates to bachelor’s degrees and beyond, in fields including cosmetology, cosmology, and everything in between. Within a given program, students typically have wide latitude to choose which particular courses to take, with what instructors, and when. Students also face a complicated array of financing options, including drawing upon savings, pursuing grants and scholarships, applying for loans, getting part-time jobs, or taking on credit card debt.

Usually, we think of choice as a good thing. In fact, classical economic theory implies that more choice can never be a bad thing. An abundance of choice may improve individual welfare by providing individually tailored alternatives, enabling students with diverse backgrounds, preparation, interests, and constraints to match with similarly diverse programs and attendance schedules. Psychological evidence also suggests that choice can strengthen individuals’ intrinsic motivation and sense of self-determination, as well as improve subjective evaluations of decision outcomes (Botti & Iyengar, 2006).   

Recent work in psychology, marketing, and behavioral economics, however, presents compelling evidence that more choice is not always better. Why? Because while “homo economicus can think like Albert Einstein, store as much memory as IBM’s Big Blue, and exercise the willpower of Mahatma Gandhi... the folks that we know are not like that… They are not homo economicus; they are homo sapiens” (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008, pp. 6–7). Homo sapiens can make mistakes, and the way choices are structured can affect how frequent and severe these mistakes may be.

Mistakes can happen, for example, because of pure cognitive overload. When it comes to complex decisions with long-term implications, individuals often struggle to determine which factors are most important, to gather all of the relevant information, and to appropriately weigh the costs and benefits in a final calculation. For students trying to choose the right courses, just acquiring all of the necessary information, let alone absorbing it, can be prohibitively time-consuming. Details about course content are often located in one place, course schedules in another, and program rules and requirements in yet another—often in a several-hundred-page academic catalog. Some pieces of critically important information, such as instructor quality, may not be revealed until after a decision is made.  

Even if students had timely and complete information about all of their options, would they know what to do with it? At any given point in time, homo economicus knows what flavor of ice cream he likes—and what he wants to do with his life. But real people often lack well-defined preferences over all possible alternatives. Evidence that seemingly irrelevant factors can sometimes dramatically influence choices demonstrates that “preferences are actually constructed—not merely revealed—during their elicitation” (Bertrand, Karlan, Mullainathan, Shafir, & Zinman, 2005, p. 30). Thus superficial details like how visually pleasing a school or course website is may have real consequences for the choices of ambivalent students.

And even after making a good decision, humans, unlike homo economicus, often have trouble following through. Individuals demonstrate far more self-control when planning the future than they do regarding the present, especially when taking action involves current pain for future gain (Laibson, 1997). So, just as many people mentally commit today to go to the gym tomorrow, students may “slack off” in the present always with the best intentions of working harder next term.

These human imperfections, combined with complex choices, can result in systematic mistakes. For example, individuals who are overwhelmed may simply choose the path of least resistance regardless of its relative merits, a concept known as default bias. In the college context, the default option each term is to not enroll, or to keep working at that part-time job instead of filing for financial aid. Or, as a result of ambivalent preferences, students may succumb to “availability bias,” fixating on a program they heard someone else had done once, or a course they saw advertised in the elevator on the way to registration.

Another potential problem is decision deferral. Individuals with imperfect self-control may procrastinate when decisions involve locking in some real or perceived loss—a phenomenon known as regret aversion. For example, students overwhelmed by their options may hesitate to choose a program or major because of the potential regret associated with closing off any one. “Hassle factors” and negative interactions can also cause individuals to avoid taking an action they know to be beneficial—like applying for financial assistance—simply because of unpleasant associations (Bertrand, Mullainathan, & Shafir, 2004).

Finally, choice overload can result in lingering dissatisfaction even after a decision is made. Customer dissatisfaction negatively corresponds to the likelihood of repeat purchases, and consumers report feeling less satisfied with a final choice when they are uncertain about it (Heitmann, Lehmann, & Herrmann, 2007). This aligns with Tinto’s (1993) model of student dropout, which he argues is a consequence of student frustration and disengagement. Students who experience an unpleasant decision process—long, crowded lines at registration, brusque staff, distracted faculty—or who have lingering doubts about their choice may leave school rather than go through the process all over again next semester.

This “dark side of choice” (Botti & Iyengar, 2006) is gaining recognition among higher education scholars and policymakers, some of whom now advocate for limiting student choice and flexibility (Rosenbaum, Deil-Amen, & Person, 2006; Jones, 2011). This is also part of the philosophy behind a new City University of New York (CUNY) community college scheduled to open in 2012. Students at the new school will be required to attend full time and will choose from just ten to twelve highly structured program offerings (CUNY, 2008).

Simply restricting students’ choices, however, is a rather blunt strategy to address the problems described above. A broad range of services and program options, combined with flexible course scheduling options, is what makes college attractive and feasible for many students. Postsecondary education without choice might begin to feel a lot like high school, and for many students this resemblance may be de-motivating. Sunstein & Thaler (2008) instead suggest that organizations improve their “choice architecture” to nudge individuals toward better decisions without limiting their options.  

So what are some potential “nudges” colleges might adopt? First, technological innovations widely used in other sectors could be implemented to improve students’ access to and navigation of information about programs, courses, requirements, and prerequisites. Currently, many college websites simply provide an alphabetical listing of program offerings, requiring students to click into each one to see what it involves, and making it difficult to compare substantively related programs. This may quickly frustrate students accustomed to the sophisticated “faceted search” websites of Amazon and Netflix, which can also make personalized suggestions based on previous choices.

Schools should also work to eliminate “hassle factors”—such as long lines at registration, burdensome and/or redundant paperwork, or negative interactions with the financial aid office—that may have consequences beyond what we might rationally expect. A recent randomized experiment found that spending less than 15 minutes to help prospective students complete and electronically submit a federal financial aid application substantially increased college enrollment rates (Bettinger, Long, Oreopoulos, & Sanbonmatsu, 2009).

Finally, colleges might experiment with setting “smart defaults” that would not limit students’ ability to customize their own path through college, but would provide them with an automatic starting point. For example, incoming students could be pre-registered for a set of common foundational courses, which they would then be free to change. Returning students could be pre-registered for a set of logical follow-up courses based on their major and previous coursework. Alternatively, schools could provide the equivalent of a “prix-fixe” menu, offering a limited selection of pre-packaged pathways while still allowing students to choose it “a la carte.”

Completing college is the result of successfully navigating a multitude of smaller decisions from start to finish. But for many college students, finding a path to completion is the equivalent of navigating a river on a dark night —and the wider the river, the more difficult it can be to find the way. Without signposts, a guide, or a visible shoreline to follow, many students will make false starts, take wrong turns, and hit unexpected obstacles, while others will simply kill the boat trying to figure out where they are. One potential solution is to have someone else take the helm. But with better choice architecture, colleges can promote students’ success without limiting their freedom to chart their own course.


Bertrand, M., Karlan, D., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E., & Zinman, J. (2005). What’s psychology worth? A field experiment in the consumer credit market (NBER Working Paper No. 11892). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Bertrand, M., Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2004). A behavioral-economics view of poverty. American Economic Review, 94(2), 419–423.

Bettinger, E. P., Long, B. T., Oreopoulos, P., & Sanbonmatsu, L. (2009). The role of simplification and information in college decisions: Results and implications from the H&R Block FAFSA experiment (NCPR Working Paper). New York, NY: National Center for Postsecondary Research.

Botti, S., & Iyengar, S. S. (2006). The dark side of choice: When choice impairs social welfare. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 25(1), 24–38.

City University of New York [CUNY]. (2008, August). A new community college concept paper. New York, NY: CUNY Office of Academic Affairs. Retrieved from http://www.cuny.edu/academics/initiatives/ncc/about/NCC_Concept_paper.pdf

Heitmann, M., Lehmann, D. R., & Herrmann, A. (2007). Choice goal attainment and decision and consumption satisfaction. Journal of Marketing Research, 44(2), 234–250.

Jones, S. (2011). “Freedom to fail? The board’s role in reducing college dropout rates,” Trusteeship Magazine (January/February). Retrieved from http://dl.dropbox.com/u/13281059/Freedom%20to%20Fail%20w%20copyright.pdf

Laibson, D. (1997). Golden eggs and hyperbolic discounting. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 112(2), 443–477.

Rosenbaum, J. E., Deil-Amen, R., & Person, A. E. (2006). After admission: From college access to college success. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

U.S. Department of Education (2011). Beginning postsecondary students: 2009 (NCES QuickStats). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 23, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16350, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 11:30:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Judith Scott-Clayton
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    JUDITH SCOTT-CLAYTON is an Assistant Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia, where she teaches labor economics and quantitative methods for causal inference. She is also a Senior Research Associate at the Community College Research Center. Her primary interests are postsecondary education, inequality, and policy design and evaluation, with a particular focus on financial aid and other policies aimed at improving college attainment among disadvantaged populations.
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