Students Must Choose

A flurry of back to school stories about student data marks a renewed emphasis on the core problem of  student choice. Like many on campus, we wonder how to help students make good choices.

We suspect the prevailing–and mutually contradictory–tendencies to help by either a) providing students more information than they can possibly absorb or b) invisibly constraining choices to guide students along pathways that serve institutional objectives. Option “a” emphasizes the rational actor; option “b” the biopolitical subject. Neither seems particularly good at imagining a student who likes the courses they take.

Many agree that students make choices that are highly consequential but have dubious foundation. Consequential because their choices drive enrollments, thus budgets and everything that flows from them. Dubious because students have a limited purview and don’t always seem to decide in ways that appear rational to more mature observers.

Consider the recent study by Alex Ruder & Michelle Van Noy, which shows that Rutgers students are unswayed by information about future earnings when they choose their major. This counterintuitive finding does not keep the study authors from doubling down on the now default solution for irrational market behavior: more data.

The brains behind the Department of Education’s College Scorecard promise to answer such calls by providing ever more granular information to potential students, projecting earnings upon graduation not only from specific schools but also from specific degree programs.

Student services experts want more data too, although of a different kind. They crave better indicators of behaviors that might impair student reason, in accordance with their charge to attend the emotional and medical needs of undergraduate populations ever more stressed out by college.

Concern with student choice is a foundational problem for the US system of higher ed, which took shape in the late nineteenth century by substituting electives for defined courses of study based in classical languages. Unlike the students of the Colonial college, university students would be free to pursue their own interests, within parameters set differently by faculty at various institutions.

The Carnegie unit provided the elective system with a necessary constant. This measure of time and effort allowed radically different courses of study to seem equivalent. Thus was the problem of student choice forever linked to statistical abstraction.

Credit hours measure both student progress to degree and the popularity of individual professors’ courses. Credit hours do not capture the intensity of any student’s or professor’s commitment, nor do they capture outcomes beyond course completion–two persistent lacunae that have begun to attract serious attention.

The 1960s married student choice to demography. National statistics had tracked completions by sex from the late nineteenth-century, but 60s enumerators added new categories and linked them with policy goals. The statistical media of biopolitics—tables and charts measuring the health and well-being of multifarious student populations—are the oft-ignored counterparts to the student activists who loom so large in our picture of the 1960s university.

Student choice was rendered autonomous and political, while subject to more intense investigation and new types of intervention. Those wishing to inform student choice acknowledged that students were not equally free to choose and sought to level the demographic playing field. They were as likely to create extracurricular programs addressing the concerns of specific groups as they were to expand course offerings, a dynamic that Roderick Ferguson describes as the institutionalization of diversity in higher education.

One final shift separates the late-nineteenth century elector of courses from today’s undergraduate: the  tremendous expansion of student loan financing from the late 1970s forward. The more debt-ridden the student population, the weightier choices of school and degree program will seem.

This burden of financial risk is not easily lifted by pointing out that factors outside the student’s control–the demographic accidents of zip code, race, and gender–better predict income than does degree program choice. Students still must choose. Data predicting earnings for degree programs does a disservice, however, whenever it neglects these demographic factors

How, then, should university faculty and professional staff inform student choices?

Clearly, we will not reach the “whole student.” Recruiters, loan officers, professors, and student services professionals each address, appraise, and advise students differently and at different points in their lives. (And students have reasons to keep aspects of their lives hidden from the bureaucracies that aspire to guide them.)

Nor will we avoid enumeration. While some equate enumeration with alienation and suspect its intensification, there is also a good case to be made for more quantification.

Kevin Carey, Director of Education Policy at New America makes that case in The Washington Monthly. Pointing out that that numbers can be analyzed…acted upon and changed,” he argues that “[t]he real tragedy of modern higher education is when students aren’t even seen as numbers—when, in other words, they aren’t seen at all.” Although students belonging to demographic categories might be visible socially or politically, they won’t “count” institutionally unless they are actually counted and thus made visible in the matrixes through which institutions tabulate investments and progress. Extending the biopolitical argument, Carey advocates predictive analytics that will make it possible to intervene before students make bad choices, to manage students by helping them to manage themselves.

We do better to greet the ever more granular enumeration of the student body as an opportunity to rethink the problem of student choice as a whole. The scorecard positions students as rational investors and consumers. They aren’t. The biopolitical option, meanwhile, tends to constrain choices rather than educating them.

Another option might be to identify the options that students like so much that they feel compelled to excel at them.

Universities differ from high schools in the often bewildering array of courses available. Although typically conceived as a problem (of return on investment, student advising, or what have you) this ever-expanding field of choice is also an advantage. It allows students to find options that might uniquely inspire them.

Universities could do much better, we think, in making the range of their offerings visible and available to students. They could borrow an insight from Netflix, for example, and attempt to predict what different students might love. Such an emphasis would run counter to the scorecard information that students ignore, in that it would not prioritize guesses about return on investment. It would also shift the emphasis of biopolitical interventions, by conceiving the student not as a risk to be managed but as a source of inspiration. It would acknowledge the desire to know.