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  • Writer's pictureDr. Thom

The Paradox of College Choice: How more is less for the mindful college applicant

Photo by Camille Chen on Unsplash

Think of all the decisions you have to make in a single lunch visit to your local deli. You likely haven’t thought of ordering a sandwich as a gauntlet of decisions, but I do as a trained educational psychologist.

First the bread, white, wheat, Italian, or asiago-topped. Then the meat, turkey, ham, cold-cut combo, Italian meat combo, chicken, veggie-patty-like-thing, etc. [breathe to get ready for the toppings] You go with mayo, tomatoes, lettuce, pickles, onions, black olives, spinach, carrots, and because your brain is starting to hurt, maybe a little oregano. Good, they’re starting to wrap the thing, it’s almost over. More questions. “Chips and a drink?” “Sure,” is followed by “Barbecue chips, sour cream and onion, baked chips, pretzels, Sun Chips?” Closing your eyes and picking now, “Uhhhh, baked barbecue.” Check that, Sun Chips. They give you the cup for your beverage, this should be easy. You’ve done this hundreds of times, you know what you like.

Stepping to the left, you meet a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine, with its glossy sheen, its flat screen flashiness, standing ready to be your digital sherpa on a journey through over 140 combinations of refreshment. Want a peach Sprite Zero, or a lemon-lime cherry caffeine free Diet Coke, or perhaps a raspberry vanilla Vault Red Blitz? You’re only five finger taps away, chief.

Let me be very clear, as a childhood fan of hippy group-sing Coke commercials and growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, I love Coke. When I’m in a restaurant and I ask for a Coke, and the server asks if Pepsi is ok, I sometimes respond with “Sure, so long as I pay for it with monopoly money?” But what Coke Freestyle illustrates to me is the extreme degree to which our culture values choice. This is partially because we as human beings fear closing off options, but perhaps more telling, is that a marketplace flooded with choices most-often paralyzes the chooser, opening a space for marketing to manipulate. That’s why your local grocery has 65 varieties of bacon, and 25 kinds of canola oil.

Have you ever sat in a presentation about colleges and heard some reference to how many college options are available to you in the United States? There’s 4,409 by the way. American higher education has long been a world gold standard because of the diversity of its composition, from small teaching-oriented colleges to large research intensive universities and all those in-between. If you are starting to consider your college options and hearing this number induces you to fidget, you are not alone.

The axiom goes like this: the more choices you have, the more freedom you have, the more you are free to make decisions, the better decision you make, the better decision you make, the happier you will be. Makes perfect sense … if it was true. What we now know from psychological research is that having more options actually paralyzes decision-makers and often makes them less satisfied with their decisions. Why?

First, knowing all of the options and the stunning array of attractive features they offer produces a kind of cognitive overload in your brain. It literally begins to send signals to “get me out of here.” A study of how people decide to save for retirement found a link between how many retirement options are offered and the likelihood of someone choosing to begin investing. For every 10 additional plans that a company offered, the percent of people choosing to invest went down 2 percent. Why? People respond with “Who the heck can sort through all these options anyway?! I DVR’d The Bachelor. I’ll do this later.”

Secondly, the more options and features we consider, the more of ourselves we have invested in the outcome of the decision – thus raising the stakes for our egos. If there was only one college in the world, and it sucked, then shame on the world for only having one to choose from. But if there were 4,409 and you chose one that sucked, then who is to blame?

Lastly, choosing from all of these options raises our expectations. When we choose an option, we are keenly aware of all of the options we did not pick, and the many attractive features they may have presented. This shows up in the first week of orientation when you have that first meal that doesn’t sit right … “I knew the food was better at Directional State U.”

What can you do about it? Dr. Sheena Iyengar, a Columbia business professor and preeminent voice on choice research and choosing, suggests four techniques:

Cut: less is more. Cut out schools that are too far away, are too big or too small. The reason does not have to be rational (“I just don’t like their mascot”).

Make it concrete: If you can visit, do that. If you can’t, try to connect with recent alumni who live in your area.

Categorize: Our brains can handle condensed options much better than the whole shebang of choices. You can use the standard categories that most websites use (public, private, etc.) or make up your own (places where I know people from my high school, places where I won’t know anyone).

Condition yourself for complexity: Your brain actually works better if you start making decisions on fewer options and then move up to greater numbers of options. Doing the opposite makes your brain hit the escape button. So start narrowing your options using simple questions with 2-3 options (religiously affiliated school or not, big or small) then move up to questions with more possible answers (what kind of location do I want? Big city, suburb, small town, middle of nowhere, etc.).

There’s no indication that this obsession with extreme levels of choice will be going away any time soon, from your local deli or from the college search. And so we must look to prepare our young people to be effective decision-makers within that structure. The “go wherever you want, and study whatever you want” advice that is often given leaves the student at a significant disadvantage and will leave them less satisfied with their choice, no matter what it is.

Less choices but more meaningful options. That’s our get-to point as parents and educators.

Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.

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