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Changes as simple as limiting choices and simplifying graduation pathways can make a world of difference on higher ed campuses – just ask a noted researcher

Dr. Rachel Baker is well-known to many at InsideTrack. As a Stanford researcher, she and Dr. Eric Bettinger published a landmark study that demonstrated how effective coaching is as a student success intervention.[1] This 2013 report paved the way for InsideTrack to come into its own — and made Dr. Baker a household name in higher ed. So when this educational research groundbreaker recently talked with InsideTrack’s founder Kai Drekmeier about how colleges could become more student-friendly, we were eager to listen.

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In her thought-provoking Month of Learning discussion, Dr. Baker shared some of the research she’s been engaged in lately, along with her thoughts on how colleges could better serve their students with a few relatively simple changes. Here are some of the takeaways.

Takeaway #1: Fewer Choices = Happier Students

As Dr. Baker points out, several colleges – particularly broad-access and community colleges – give students “many, many, many choices” in an effort to be everything to everyone. This abundance of choice starts with selecting a major, and a look at various school websites shows a paralyzing list of options presented almost immediately to a potential student. As the “paradox of choice” theory has told us, the more choices people have, the less likely they are to be happy with their decision. And this seems especially true for students, who may not even understand all the options. Dr. Baker therefore suggests that schools take a look at simplifying the process for students by thinking in terms of bucketing or grouping similar majors. As an example, this would mean that instead of 95 possible majors presented in one long list, there may be six or so broader, discipline-specific categories (like “business” or “engineering”) with a dozen or so options listed under each.

She cautions, however, that when making structural decisions at a school, there may be outcomes that are hard to predict. Her own research into the choice process of bucketing majors by discipline (versus having one long laundry list of majors) seems to simplify the decision for male students but not so much for female students. More studies into the matter are warranted. Nonetheless, her point still stands – and is backed by choice theory, behavioral economics and the decision-making sciences – that less is more when it comes to offering choices.

Takeaway #2: The Path to Graduation is Often Unnecessarily Confusing and Complicated

Dr. Baker’s assertion that colleges are complex, rule-based and generally hard to navigate through seems rather indisputable. One area where this seems especially true is curriculum requirements. After talking with a particularly bright and motivated student who was “totally lost” trying to figure out what classes she needed for her degree program. Dr. Baker was astounded to see how complex this student’s college – and countless others – made the process of charting a degree path. Among the anonymous examples she shared of various colleges’ requirements diagrams is the one below, which looks like a sight gag but is, sadly, all too real.

Intrigued, Dr. Baker and a colleague dove into it, devising a math formula to measure curriculum requirement complexity levels for various degrees – does a biology degree, for example, always have more complex requirements than a degree in English – and then comparing that across various colleges. What did they find? That it varies wildly from college to college for any given major. For Dr. Baker, this indicated that the schools with the most complex requirements could likely, with the right kind of faculty and administrative support, make their requirements much simpler.

To take their study a step further, Dr. Baker and her colleague enlisted roughly 520 student volunteers. They sent the students to a website they had created, randomly assigned them varying complexities of curricular requirements for different majors, and asked them to map out their path to graduation. After analyzing all the captured data to see if their objective measures of complexity matched the students’ subjective experience of this complexity, Dr. Baker found that yes, the more complex the requirements, the longer it took the students to complete the assignment, the more mistakes they made, and the less likely they were to graduate. But it also wasn’t a perfect correspondence. So now she will go back and seek another way to measure complexity that maps better with how students experience it.

Takeaway #3: Researcher and Founder See Eye to Eye

From different parts of the higher ed battlefield, Dr. Baker and InsideTrack founder and chief development officer Kai Drekmeier are both fighting to do more for the students they serve, every single day. Because of the many competing demands on students’ time and energy combined with the many competing demands on school resources, they agree that making colleges of all types and sizes as easy as possible to navigate can only help. It’s Dr. Baker’s hope that the research she’s doing will expose the bureaucratic policies and procedures that may benefit school administrators, but don’t benefit students — and can be changed to make the higher education experience more student-centered. Just as Dr. Baker’s work several years ago on that groundbreaking study changed the future of individualized coaching, her current work continues to benefit countless students. Her passion for supporting student success is in sync with InsideTrack’s mission of using coaching to empower and advance all learners.

A Bit More About Dr. Baker: Dr. Rachel Baker is currently studying issues in access to and success in higher education with a focus on students in broad-access institutions. In January, Dr. Baker left sunny southern California and her post at the UC Irvine School of Education to take a position as an assistant professor in the Higher Education Division at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.[1] The randomized controlled trials showed significant increases in student persistence and graduation of coached students, and the Baker and Bettinger report itself is still considered to be the gold standard in the field of higher education and the Department of Education’s citation of choice on increasing completion rates.

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