Working Paper 35
Higher education choice-making in the United States: freedom, inequality, legitimation
Published May 2018

Professor Kevin J. Dougherty from Columbia University shows that the provision of many choices in higher education, widely seen as desirable and fair, reproduces and legitimates social inequality when those choices are not accompanied by enough information.

The paper examines the process of making higher education choices in the United States – whether to enter higher education, attend a particular college, or follow a particular route through college. It draws on research findings in the sociology of education, behavioural economics, and cognitive and social psychology.

Professor Dougherty points out that the more one thinks in terms of choice-making the more one tends to blame the unfortunate, including oneself, for poor results. Both the winners and losers in society come to feel that much of the inequality they experience is due to their own actions and is therefore legitimate.

Yet, as Professor Dougherty argues, less advantaged people are more likely to make poorer choices due to societal factors such as unequal economic resources, greater exposure to discrimination, and unequal provision of good information.

Professor Dougherty suggests that the provision of information in more equal ways would help, as would reducing the number of fateful choices students have to make. He also argues that we should reduce the impacts of bad choices by better tracking of students’ progress into and through higher education and intervening as needed to help students who go off-track.

Finally, he argues that we need to demystify the process of choice-making so that students are aware that it is distorted by structures of inequality, and consequently place less blame on themselves and others for sub-optimal choices.