Friday, January 23, 2009

Libertarian Paternalism

I read a book about a month ago (Nudge) that has had me thinking a lot about the issue of choice and how much freedom universities should give to students in making choices about their education.  The idea of "libertarian paternalism" is a way of preserving freedom of choice, but which also allows institutions (such as universities) to encourage individuals to make choices that are more likely to be beneficial for them.  For example, school cafeterias have found that foods placed at eye level are much more likely to be selected than those that might be placed on a lower shelf or display table (I think grocery stores know this as well which is why the expensive name-brand cereals are always at eye level and the cheap store brands are almost on the floor).

This has some interesting implications for Universities and the way we structure our systems.  At times we may be guilty of providing students with so many choices and options that it is complicated at best and overwhelming to the point of paralysis at worst (See The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz for an interesting discussion of this phenomenon).  An example of this is course registration.  At my institution students must complete a set of "University Core" requirements (just a fancy way of saying "General Education") in order to graduate--an important aspect of the college experience, no doubt.  The problem is that for each of the many Core requirements there is a very long list of courses or complicated table explaining what combinations of courses can meet the requirement.  Many students make poor choices about what courses to enroll in to fill these requirements, often finding themselves in a course they either aren't interested in or one that actually doesn't "count" towards the requirement.   Students are able to meet with advisors to help them make these decisions, but that requires initiative and time, two barriers that keep a lot of students out of the offices of academic advisors (another problem worth exploring in another post).  Hence, students are often left to their own devices, relying upon what they find online, in conversations with friends, etc.  What was intended to be a good thing for students--choice--ends up being a burden that can cause anxiety and ultimately, poor decisions.

Nudge suggests that institutions finding themselves in these situations would do well to think of themselves as "choice architects".  Their role is to preserve freedom of choice, but to design the process of "choosing" in a way that both informs and assists individuals in making wise choices.  What if universities were to design templates that were the default course schedules for students (maybe even just during their first few semesters while they are getting their feet wet).  Students could opt out of these templates and design their own schedule, but the default would be a good fit (albeit not "perfect") for the majority of the students.  Or, what if there were a tool developed that functioned like Turbo Tax?  Students would be asked a series of questions about their interests, AP Credit, future job aspirations, etc. and based on the information they input the program would suggest a small number of possible schedules from which the student could choose.  This would preserve their choice, but help them narrow the field to a manageable number of "good" choices.

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