At the Green Door restaurant, customers line up, take a plate, then fill it with their choice of items from the restaurant's vegetarian buffet. At the cash each plate is weighed, and the customer's bill is calculated: price per gram*grams of food taken=cost of dinner.
This pricing scheme creates an interesting choice problem. It might appear that the best strategy would be to load up one's plate with the items that cost the most, in terms of price per gram, to prepare. So the savvy restaurant goer should stock up on avocado salad, because avocados are very expensive in Canada, but eschew the rice and the beetroot salad, because rice is easy to cook at home, and beetroots are one of the cheapest vegetables available.
Personally, I always help myself to a generous spoonful of avocado salad. However I've found that maximizing "value" in terms of the preparation cost per gram of the items on one's plate generally produces a sub-par dining experience. For example, one of the tastiest items at the buffet is a potato-kale bake, loaded with butter, cheese and cream. Because potato and kale are cheap, it probably has a fairly low cost per gram. But to pass it over on cost grounds means missing out on a delicious dish. Also, some of the healthiest items, like the bean curries and the rice, are some of the cheapest to prepare. A dinner made up entirely of high cost-per-gram items may not be as healthy or satisfying as a dinner that includes low cost-per-gram items.
Perhaps the solution, then, is to ignore cost considerations entirely, and just fill one's plate with whatever takes one's fancy?
Not quite. The Green Door has been in business for many years, and its owners are pretty savvy. They didn't have to read Nudge to work out that people fill their plates with the first items they come to in the buffet line-up. The avocado salad is generally positioned towards the back of the buffet. The less expensive potato-kale bake and broccoli-tofu stir-fry are prominently featured. Actually, I may be doing the restauranteurs a disservice here - I've been told that the positioning of the items simply reflects their popularity. But whatever the reasoning behind the buffet set-up, the point is still valid: it's hard to select "whatever takes one's fancy" when the choice architecture in place nudges one towards making particular decisions.
Undergraduate education in Canada uses roughly the same pricing strategy as the Green Door restaurant. The price students pay per course is more or less the same, regardless of the actual costs of delivering the course, or the value - either the entertainment value or the "human capital formation" value - of the course in question. BA students pay the same fee for being in a class of 15 students taught by a full professor paid $150,000 per year as they do for being in a class of 300 students taught by a contract instructor paid $10,000 per course. Students pay the same fee for courses with ultra-low-cost multiple choice examinations, based on questions straight from the test bank provided to the instructor with the textbook, as they do for courses where the instructor puts in 60 or 70 hours weeks so he or she can read and comment on his or her students' essays. Students pay the same fee whether the professor is conscientious or irresponsible, and regardless of whether or not the course imparts valuable skills (though the cost per course is higher in some degrees, for example, a Bachelor of Computer Science or Bachelor of Engineering, than in other degrees, for example, a Bachelor of Arts).
Since undergraduate education and the Green Door restaurant use similar pricing strategies, what can undergraduates can learn from thinking about education as a smorgasbord?
Universities offer some high cost courses - the avocado salads of undergraduate education. It might be that these are to attract good students, provide them with a decent education, and build the university's reputation. Or it might be that universities are responding to professors' demands to teach small seminars on particular topics. Whatever the reason, there are some high cost courses, and they are in limited supply.
Not every course is special: most Canadian universities would not be financially viable if they did not offer a good number of large lecture courses, and make extensive use of contract instructors. Moreover, universities have a large store of elderly turnips and dried out kidney beans that they have to move somehow.
But one thing that surprised me during my time as an academic administrator was that the "avocado salad" options on the educational buffet were not always eaten. I have seen small enrolments in fourth year special topics courses taught by top-flight professors, "first year seminars" that give incoming students a small-class, writing-intensive experience, and a research experience course that allows a student to work one-on-one with a professor on a research project, and get something concrete to put on their c.v.
It might be that students actually enjoy the less-expensive-to-produce courses - indeed, at the university level reducing class size can be relatively ineffective way of improving educational outcomes (see, for example, here). Or it might be that the avocado salad is at the back of the buffet, well out of reach.
There are two basic ways in which a university can restrict access to avocado salad. One is by only making it available to students who are able to certain tests, for example, achieve a minimum grade point, or write a coherent essay. So, for example, many degree programs have co-op options, but these are typically only available to the better students. But it doesn't seem fair not to allow weaker students to have any avocado salad at all. So universities - perhaps deliberately, perhaps inadvertently - ration access to avocado salad in another way: by putting it somewhere students can't find it.
It can be genuinely difficult for students to find out about the substance, or the quality, of the courses each university offers. Savvy students find out about special offerings by talking to an academic advisor, checking out departmental websites and ratemyprofessors.com, getting to know senior students in their program and asking for their advice (for example, through student societies) and reading their university email, especially emails from the department's undergraduate or graduate administrator.
But it is not uncommon for students to choose their courses on the basis of an uninformative course outline. Here's one for Carleton University's fourth year econometrics course:
An introduction to econometric theory and analysis of the classical normal regression model. Topics include estimation methods, hypothesis testing, multicollinearity, autocorrelation, and heteroscedasticity.
Is the course theoretical or applied? Does it involve any real world data analysis? What kind of software or programming skills will be taught? It is hard to find out.
Now it's not as if no one in the educational sector is unaware of the difficulties students face choosing courses. In Ontario, for example, massive efforts are being directed towards creating "learning outcomes". Here is one for a second year econometrics course at Western University (where learning outcomes seem to be included in all course outlines):
Learning outcomes. After this course, students should be able to: form and evaluate probability statements, be able to work with conditional probabilities and apply Bayes rule, derive sampling distributions for discrete or continuous random variables, compute a point estimate for a population parameter, compute a confidence interval for the population mean of a discrete or continuous random variable, formulate a hypothesis test, test for a difference in means for discrete or continuous random variables, and understand the basics underlying a one-variable linear regression model.
This isn't a bad learning outcome statement - it's probably a reasonably accurate description of what the professor hopes to cover in the course - but I can't imagine it being a lot of use to an undergraduate trying to select his or her courses. Learning outcomes describe, usually in general and abstract terms, what professors hope to impart to students. They do not speak to (a) whether or not those learning outcomes will actually be realized or (b) the value of those learning outcomes.
I'm not sure what the point of this post is. Students struggle to make the best educational choices because they do not have sufficient information? Universities engage in cross-subsidization, making money on some courses or students and losing money on others? Beans and rice are cheap, nutritious and delicious? All of the above?