More data can lead to poor student choices, Hefce learns

Overwhelmed university applicants filter out information to cope, research finds

April 3, 2014

Bombarding prospective students with information about degree courses can lead to “decision paralysis” which results in poorer choices, according to research commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The finding overturns Hefce’s assumption that students make rational decisions about higher education and raises questions about the government’s push for more data about university courses.

One key promise of the 2011 higher education White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, was to “radically” expand information available for prospective students.

In 2012 a revamped Unistats website was launched, offering data on areas including course satisfaction, teaching time and average graduate salaries, while last month the Office of Fair Trading recommended that universities provide even more information, such as staff experience levels.

Yet the new research, released this week, finds that “too much information can lead to cognitive overload” for prospective students.

“Being presented with too many choices can lead to ‘decision-making paralysis’ which inhibits the ability to reach a satisfactory outcome” and can create feelings of demotivation and “helplessness”, the report says.

Drawing on behavioural economics, the research explains that individuals who are overwhelmed will unconsciously filter out some data as a “coping” strategy and therefore may make “sub-optimal” decisions.

The report says that it is “not yet able to determine” when UK university applicants will reach the point of “information overload”.

Beth Steiner, a senior higher education policy adviser at Hefce, told a workshop last month that the findings had “raised several questions in our minds about Unistats and how fit for purpose it might be”.

She said that one solution could be a system that allows students to select “different levels of detail” about courses. A Hefce spokesman said the council was not anticipating any changes to Unistats before 2017.

Ms Steiner said that Hefce had assumed that “if you give them [prospective students] lots and lots of information, they will take that information and they will systematically work through it and they will make a reasoned analysis and decision based on that analysis”.

“We fully own up to that assumption, which we have made in the past – but it’s clearly not realistic,” she told the Association of Colleges’ annual higher education conference in London on 11 March.

As well as its findings on information overload, the report outlines how a person’s “final selection of a university often comes down to whether or not it feels right”.

Applicants commonly choose a course on an “emotional” and “non-rational” basis, says UK Review of the Provision of Information about Higher Education: Advisory Study and Literature Review.

Higher education is a “post-experience” good, it argues, meaning that students cannot know if they have made the right decision until completing the course.

This insight has “important applications” for the current “marketization” of higher education, it adds.

The study, part of a wider review of the information provided by institutions and carried out by CFE Research, draws on existing research into decision-making from fields such as behavioural economics and cognitive psychology.

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