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This Is Your Brain on Poverty: Fewer Choices, More Graduates

Limiting the choices of community college students paradoxically leads to greater academic success.
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Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of Pacific Standard as a sidebar to "This Is Your Brain on Poverty."

It isn’t unusual to feel bewildered in the face of too many choices. Many students — especially low-income, first-generation students — are overwhelmed by the proliferation of classes and majors available at a typical community college. What to study? Where to begin? Who to turn to for help?

“Students who face a cafeteria menu of choices — you know, ‘Pick one class from Column A, two from Column B, three from Column C’ — it’s very confusing. It would be confusing to most adults, much less the average recent high school graduate,” says Stuart Cochran, dean of strategic planning at Guttman Community College in New York City.

So Guttman has only five majors. Students are guided through a structured process to help them select the right major and succeed in their courses. Every student starts by taking an extensive, mandatory course exploring different careers, and only after this course’s completion do they choose their major. Once a week, students attend a required group advising session for support and guidance. They also have access to peer mentors, and are grouped together in classes to encourage mutual support and coordinated instruction. “Nobody falls through the cracks here,” Cochran says.

It seems to be working. Nearly 50 percent of Guttman College’s students — most of whom are low-income, first-generation college students — graduate within three years, “which is off-the-charts unheard-of in higher ed,” Cochran says. The average three-year graduation rate for community colleges in the United States is around 20 percent.

At other schools, students often flounder because “colleges have vastly expanded their course offerings without expanding counseling to help students navigate those options,” says Josh Wyner, executive director of the college excellence program at the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of What Excellent Community Colleges Do: Preparing All Students for Success. “The Guttman school is the antidote to that.” By limiting choices and guiding students through specific pathways, Guttman overcomes the natural decision paralysis that plagues so many of us in the face of too many choices.