Being an informed consumer

Would you buy a car without first doing research? Visiting a dealership? Shopping around? Taking a test drive? Assessing your various options considering your preferences, finances, and needs?

Probably not.

The same goes for any big purchase or transition. Informed consumers take their time and consult multiple sources and perspectives before buying a house, investing in the stock market, relocating cities, or taking on a new job. Savvy customers dig under the surface even for relatively minor things like consulting Rotten Tomatoes for what movie to see, using Trip Advisor for finding great hotel deals, or browsing Yelp for the best restaurant in town. Prudent people check out not just Trip Advisor, but Priceline, Booking, and AirBnb for the best places to stay.

Why should college admissions be any different? You don’t need me to tell you about how choosing what to do after high school is often the biggest decision you have made in your life up to that point. There seems to be a disconnect between looking at college admissions as you would any other consumer decision or long-term investment.

Frighteningly, during my time at UT, I saw time and again students and families doing little to no research. College decisions appeared almost whimsical at times. These are actual reasons I regularly heard:

“I’m going there because my friend/girlfriend/cousin is going there!”

“My dad went there!”

“I love the buildings!”

“I hear the food is great!”

“Ugh, when I visited, the classrooms smelled funny. I won’t be going there.”

“The volleyball games are a lot of fun!”

“Have you seen that rock climbing wall??”

I may be exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea. Teenagers aren’t always rational.

Eeven somewhat more reasonable answers related to rankings, the university’s location, or knowledge of research facilities often lacked the breadth, depth, and critical thinking adequate for reasonably weighing the costs and benefits of a particular university or degree relative to others.

Recently, scientists have crossed disciplinary boundaries in psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, and economics to overturn an age-old misconception that humans make decisions rationally. Behavioral economics, pioneered by Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky, examines the cognitive biases and decision-making situations where we are easily fooled.

As Kahneman suggests in Thinking Fast and Slow, we often overestimate our ability to make sound decisions; they are driven as much if not more by emotion than by careful, rational reflection. This article offers a good introduction to a biological explanation for why we may not be very good at assessing our options.

“Our findings contribute to a large body of research on human decision-making that tells a pretty consistent story: choice biases are deeply ingrained, and they’re often really hard to overcome.”

From my observations, students, with influence from their families, seem to get stuck on one university or aspect of a particular college and can’t get off of it. Anecdotally, I observed that most people seemed woefully uninformed and lacked the “college search literacy” to even know what questions to ask. And that’s understandable – the college search can be intimidating and overwhelming.

When I used to conduct admissions presentations, we listed the myriad of reasons one may find UT appealing: Austin and all that it has to offer, the vast range and high quality of academic programs, research opportunities, job prospects after graduation, study abroad, student life, etc. It was a shotgun approach.

I regularly went off script, so to speak, and talked about what it means to be an informed consumer. I aimed at injecting a bit of critical thinking into what is basically a consumer decision. Not simply asking what UT is ranked in such and such program relative to others, but how and why you evaluate rankings? Which rankings do you choose? Do rankings really matter?

Looking at not just the sticker price of a four-year degree, but assessing the critical component of return on investment. Is a particular degree worth it based on job prospects following graduation or anticipated lifetime earnings relative to the cost?

Informed consumers firstly examine data, but most importantly frame that data within the context of the information’s source and what else is out there. They ask questions, possess curiosity, and don’t settle for easy, black-and-white answers.

In later posts, I will dig deeper into how to be an informed consumer when it comes to the college search and selection and many of the irrational behaviors I witnessed after working with hundreds of students and their families.