The student as consumer, and the burden of choice
If we’ve spoken or crossed paths in a webinar recently, you may recognize a recurring theme (perhaps obsession) of mine: the student as a consumer. My preoccupation is a reaction to a common assumption that higher education purchases are somehow different than other high-stakes purchases. While the benefits of education arguably outweigh those of other purchases, the learner is first a consumer, and consumer psychology is unequivocally at play.
To more intimately understand the student-consumer’s expectations for digital or online learning, Pearson (the global learning company) partnered with Accenture (the global management consultancy). We believed Accenture’s consumer behavior insights could be applied to the student-consumer journey, to benefit learners, providers of learning, and employers. This series provides a few observations about what we learned together. This post focuses on the beginning of the student journey: the purchase.
The burden of choice
Accenture observed that businesses struggle to create personalized experiences that don’t drown their customers in too many options. Overwhelmed by choices, consumers are likelier to make poor decisions, be less satisfied, and abandon a website or brand altogether. To paraphrase Accenture, the endless aisle sounds great until you have to walk down it.1
That burden of choice also applies to a student’s education decision, with profound implications. Making the best choice in higher education is methodical, often taking four months or longer. It is high stakes — particularly given its cost, and it is nearly impossible to do effectively today. Learners faced with information overload and limited processing abilities will narrow their decisions to known institutions, or those that rank on page one of search.
As a simplistic thought experiment, I searched for “online MBA.” In .46 seconds, I received 332 million results. Valuable information… no doubt. Finding insight of value to me as a prospect… dubious. We know from our own research that nearly 3 in 10 learners are so overwhelmed by education search that they abandon the process without ever enrolling.2