To Get More Students Through College, Give Them Fewer Choices

April 23, 2015 8:03 AM ET
Anya Kamenetz

How many different flavors of jam do you need to be happy?

In 2000, a famous experiment showed that when people were presented with a supermarket sampler of 24 exotic fruit flavors, they were more attracted to the display. But, when the sample included only six flavors, they were 10 times more likely to actually buy.

This experiment contributed to the literature of what’s known as “the paradox of choice.” Too many choices can lead to feelings of frustration, dissatisfaction and paralysis, which is especially bad in cases where not making a choice is the worst one of all.

College is no different from jam, according to a surprising new book, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges. The authors, three Columbia University education researchers, argue that the best way to help the largest number of students get through college is to give them fewer pathways than they have now.

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