Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Hierarchy Of Student Decisions Making- how they choose

Over the past two years, we have been interviewing students to listen and better understand what they seek from going to college. We also sought to hear what motivates them to make their decisions to choose a school or leave it.

There is much we learned from the 618 students. One of the things we came to understand is that there is a five step hierarchy of student concerns that guides most of their decision-making in choosing a school, then deciding to stay or leave. These steps in the hierarchy are governed primarily by some logical decision-making. The emotional aspects of fit and all seemed to be there I am sure but it did not come up except as a last aspect of the decision hierarchy when the other four preceding, or more important steps were answered in their minds.

The hierarchy takes the form of five questions students (and parents) think about when considering a college, university or career school to attend. Can I get in? Can I afford it? Can I graduate? Can I get a job? and Will I like it?

In some ways the questions parallel the organization of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need which starts at physiological concerns such as breathing, eating, drinking, procreating – all issues that are basic to just staying alive. Also as with Maslow simply because a question or need is fulfilled at a point in time does not mean a student will not regress down the hierarchy to return to a lower-level need. This will almost always occur for example when tuition, fees, housing, meal tickets and so on come due for payment. The need to focus on Can I afford it comes back until the question is answered.

This diagram shows Maslow's hierarchy of needs, represented as a pyramid with the more primitive needs at the bottom.

As we can see in Maslow’s hierarchy, without being alive, none of the following higher level needs matter after all. If one is dead, it is hard to worry about anything else. And so it is with the Student Decision Hierarchy. They proceed from basic issues of “being alive in a decision process” such as getting accepted to the school. They then move from lower/basic considerations of necessity and immediacy to considerations of ROI, the future and even an issue of satisfaction. But, the question of a satisfying experience is the last issue for consideration by students. This placement suggests a parallel to Maslow’s category of “esteem” but maybe not yet self-actualization. Enjoying school can only be a concern after the very practical survival issues from gaining entrance to a job are addressed. After the basic and practical considerations are resolve allowing a student to worry about having a good time as a decision point.

So what does this say to us?

It says that students start from basic and practical considerations toward their college experience as a way to a means. Granted, not every single one perhaps. There are students who may go to college for the parties and the college experience or because their parents have told them they will go. Students in these groups may not deal with the issues of the hierarchy seriously but then they are usually not serious students and have a tendency to either do something academics refer to as flunk out or finally getting with the script. Those that are going to funk out because they really do not attend the college except to participate in its social life are seldom students we can affect positively no matter what we do. So we cannot focus too much effort on them but on the major cohorts of students who can be affected positively to stay at the school through customer service

To do so a significant part of customer service needs to focus on their hierarchical concerns and how they see college. They see it, as we already know from the annual CIRP UCLA Freshman Attitudes study as a means to an end, a job/career. For students, that end is quite practical just as the hierarchy shows the beginning decision-making is. At their core, students are practical about attending higher education. From start to finish, students go to college and will stay at a school if it can supply that objective of a job.

Sure they would like to enjoy the experience but they will endure if it means they can get that job. That is the major focus They wish to enjoy their time at college but they cannot do that until we serve their other more pressing concerns – paying for it, getting what they need to graduate and finally, an assurance they can get a job or get into a good grad school on the way to a career from their college experience.

Yet, though students are practical and career-focused in the drive to attend and stay at a school what we find is that most schools spend most of their time , money and effort attempting to affect the highest-level, lowest need concern in the hierarchy – enjoying school. From the first day of orientation, “you’ll love it here” is the focus when perhaps focusing more on paying for school in the future, graduation and careers is a better investment. It may be that when we concentrate too much on trying to make students enjoy their experience, we are not serving them as well as we could. Nor are we necessarily helping retention as we will discuss in the next posting which continues the discussion on the Hierarchy of Student Decision-Making.

The Hierarchy of Student Decisions appears to me to be a bit blurred. It if looks the same to you, please contact me at and I will send you a clear JPEG of it. Course, I have been working all day at this laptop and my eyes may just be blurry and not the diagram.

1 comment:

J Case said...

This is a very important piece of information. I am not aware that anyone has ever studied this before. The research results are so simple and logical that it is embarrassing it took this long. You are doing some of the best research and writing on students and retention anywhere. Thank you.