I just finished another book that (mostly) isn't about education but which has important implications for higher ed. The book is Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler.
Sunstein and Thaler start by drawing a distinction between Econs--the ideal human being who appears only in economic theory--and Humans--real people. Humans tend to make a lot of decisions that aren't in their best interests because they don't fully understand the implications, or they used outmoded heuristics, or because the decision systems available to them don't help.
S and T propose a regime of "libertarian paternalism" to help these people while not diminshing their freedom (much). Libertarian paternalism relies on "nudges" to encourage people to make good decisions without forcing them to do so. And one of the most important nudges is to set up the default option in any complex decision process so that it does good for the decider.
For example, a surprisingly high proportion of people fail to sign up for retirement plans at work, even though the employer contributes the bulk of the money to it. S and T suggest that to get past this problem, the default ought to be to sign all employees up for a plan that invests retirement funds into a balanced portfolio. People are absolutely free to opt out, but if they don't they will--lo and behold--be saving money for retirement.
Colleges and universities, by and large, are places where both libertarianism and paternalism exist in a quiet but consequential state of war (in part because they assume that students are simultaneously Econs and Infants.) The libertarian part of a campus might tell students that they are welcome to sign up for whatever classes they wish (after all, we don't want to act like their parents, do we?). But after a period of libertarianism, the students run up against paternalism--the requirement, for example, that students must have an exact mix of courses from the right disciplines and with the right number of credit hours in order to graduate. The result is that college students take far longer than necessary to graduate, costing them thousands of dollars in excess tuition not to mention the opportunity cost of being in school instead of the workforce.
A libertarian paternalist approach to this problem would ensure that students are automatically enrolled in courses that will get them to their desired goal (a degree in history, for example) in an educationally sound and efficient manner. If they wish to diverge from that path, they are welcome to without penalty. All they have to do is meet with an advisor and make the change.
The result would be both a smoother, more integrated educational experience and more frequent contact between students and advisors--both good outcomes.
(S and T, by the way, have asked people to compile their favorite nudges. To do so just go to www.nudges.org)
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