Published on 2018/01/26

Overcoming Choice Paralysis: How Colleges Can Stand Out Over the Abundance of Options

The EvoLLLution | Overcoming Choice Paralysis - How Colleges Can Stand Out Over the Abundance of Options
As the higher education space evolves into a mature market with many institutions competing for student enrollments, they must recognize and minimize the reality of choice-induced “brain freeze” experienced by consumers in other industries.

The higher education space is evolving into a mature market, where institutions are competing fiercely for student enrollments and finding new approaches to programming that meets the demands of their mission while also increasing revenue and supporting student learning. Of course, as the number of institutions able to serve any given student grows—along with the variety of modalities, program models and course options—students can begin to experience a phenomenon that has been observed in other industries: a kind of choice paralysis that hampers decision making. In this interview, Russell Winer discusses this phenomenon in more detail, connects it to the higher education space and shares his thoughts on how college and university marketers can overcome it.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): As a marketer, why is an abundance of choice for consumers a negative?

Russell Winer (RW): Research has shown that more choice is not better than less choice because when there’s too much choice it tends to put consumers into a brain freeze. People just get more confused about the options, and what we found is that, in many cases, people just choose not to choose at all. I think it’s certainly the case that too much choice—while it sounds theoretically good—increases the amount of time people have to spend processing all the information about products and it sometimes becomes overwhelming.

Evo: What does this concept mean for higher education marketers?

RW: There are thousands of options for college, and some kind of narrowing down has to happen. You can’t apply to one thousand places. If we just take a look at, say, undergraduate education, the result of having so many choices and having to cull them is that there’s a great deal of potential for students to make sub-optimal choices. The bulk of the guides or online guides to college education are so thick or have so many pages that I think that students or applicants have to rely on polls or rankings and high school counsellors’ which are imperfect sources of information. I’m not a real big supporter of rankings. I think they do a big disservice to students looking for college options or even graduate programs because they reduce the experience down to numbers. The number of choices, especially at the college level, is overwhelming and can result in students not necessarily making the best choices.

Evo: From a student’s—or consumer’s—perspective, is the choice available in the postsecondary market a positive or a negative?

RW:  I think if you take a look into the future, ultimately there is going to be a shake out, and we’re already starting to see it to some extent with some colleges going out of business or merging. There are just too many options for the number of kids looking to go to school. Too many choices on the one hand is good because there are obviously some places out there that will be a great fit, but on the other hand finding that school that’s a great fit is just becoming more and more difficult.

Evo: How can higher education marketers rise above the noise in the postsecondary space?

RW: I think it’s more and more important for schools to develop a sound point of difference or what we call a value proposition to try to get through a quarter of all the schools on contact. How do you develop a compelling message to our prospective enrollees at the college when they’re being exposed to all kinds of media, all kinds of information from other schools all the usual kinds of marketing devices? Colleges and universities have reacted by becoming much more consumer oriented, reaching students, reaching their parents, reaching the guidance counselors, and reaching the senior educators.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the impact of an abundance of choice on higher ed marketing and student decision making?

RW: The first implication is from the consumer side as it becomes more and more difficult to make the choice with all the options that are out there. Secondly, from the institution side, there is more and more pressure to develop a compelling value proposition to stand out from the crowd. If you’re Harvard you don’t worry about it too much, but 99 percent of schools do have to worry about it so I think those are the two main issues.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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Key Takeaways

  • Too much choice tends to make customers freeze up, and this phenomenon impacts students as well, given the choices available in terms of modality, institution, credential type and more.
  • It's not just students who are negatively impacted by this choice-induced "brain freeze" - colleges and universities have been forced to merge or close because of their inability to stand out.
  • The information students have at their disposal to make choices about the ideal college fit is unreliable, and postsecondary institutions need to combat this by clearly defining and communicating their value to students who might be a good fit.