MDRC in the News

Choices, Choices: For College Students, a Buffet of Options Causes Heartburn

The Washington Post


By the time Rodrigo Chinchon decided to change his major from architecture, he was two years into college and 15 credits behind what he would need for his new choice: international business.

“When I switched, I had a lot of requirements to fulfill. I was sort of lost,” said Chinchon, a student at Florida International University.

It will take Chinchon an extra semester to earn his degree, and that’s even after he took courses in the summers to catch up. Many other students in his position just drop out.

For generations of young people, going off to college was a step toward independence. But for this generation, a surprising new problem is thwarting their success: too many choices.

These students are increasingly the children of parents who helicoptered them through elementary, middle and high school, or who didn’t go to college and can’t provide much help with it. For these and other reasons, some take courses they don’t need, pick majors they will later change and don’t know what to do when the resulting problems leave them on the brink of flunking out…

…Colleges “are probably right from a marketing point of view to advertise the million different ways you can go through the institution. That will appeal to 18-year-olds,” Schwartz said. “But it won’t appeal to them when it’s time for them to make decisions.”

Colleges have self-interested reasons for monitoring their students so closely and for sometimes limiting their choices. One is that it’s cheaper to keep students from dropping out than it is to recruit new students. Another: Consumers are increasingly conscious of low graduation rates.

Rodrigo Chinchon, at Florida International, regained his footing after switching from architecture to business. Now, he’s thinking of combining the two disciplines so that he can develop and design real estate.

Of course, by hovering over their students in these ways, colleges and universities risk being criticized for practicing the same paternalism that has been causing the problems in the first place.

But Michael J. Weiss, senior research associate at the social policy research organization MDRC, said he isn’t worried about students being coddled.

“If there is expertise within an institution that knows there are better, easier, shorter paths to getting degrees,” Weiss said, “it seems smart to set up the architecture of the institution such that those choices are easier to make.”

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