April 23, 2015 8:03 AM ET
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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Like many people my first though was the world has changed and of course we need to raise the bar on educational expectations. But then I began to think about it a little more closely. I work in a community college and 70% of incoming freshman are not college ready and this is not unique to my institutions. We spend a great deal of time often a year or more getting students to the college level. This proposal suddenly looks more like an attempt to fix a broken k-12 system than raising the bar.
The second thing that jumps out at me has more to do with the funding than the merits of the proposal. Under the proposal the president has made 25% of the funding would come from the states. My community college is in Illinois and currently the state has difficulties meeting its financial obligations to higher ed. Many of the community colleges in this state has struggled greatly due to this. I can’t image the state being able to take on this new responsibility.