​Harvard’s Advising Needs a Nudge

A Harvard acceptance letter is a golden ticket to the wonders of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Once you’re in, the world of bottomless chocolate rivers, everlasting candy, endless library shelves, countless experts, and infinite learning opportunities is at your fingertips. You suddenly have access to an overwhelming array of academic, intellectual, cultural, and professional resources. The only problem is that you have to find your way through the factory yourself.

Freshman fall, College students get a HarvardKey login and an online course catalog of over 2,000 classes—and are told to pick what interests them. Pulled in every direction by the well-rounded interests that got them into Harvard and overwhelmed with the options, students can easily miss out on the best classes to take. While there are certainly advantages to the academic exploration that comes with such trial and error, semesters spent exploring instead of fulfilling prerequisites can keep even the most driven students from taking more intellectually rewarding classes in the future.

But the difficulties don’t end with academics, or with freshman year. Finding extracurricular activities often comes down to stumbling upon the right booth at the activity fair on the Quad’s lawn, or striking up the right conversation with the right upperclassmen. Scheduling class during Office of Career Services workshops, forgetting about Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships office hours, or spending the weekend studying for a midterm instead of researching internships on Crimson Careers can mean missing the deadline for exciting summer programs. Not knowing to look online for Writing Center appointments, to check department websites for research offerings, or to go into office hours simply to chat with professors can mean poor papers, missed jobs, and lost conversations.

Academic and faculty advisers, Peer Advising Fellows, resident deans, administrative offices, and fellow students are extremely helpful and more than willing to offer advice for navigating such opportunities, but the burden of reaching out to these mentors and resources—and even knowing that they exist—is up to the student, which often means study and work schedules, other commitments, networking inexperience, shyness, or plain forgetfulness comes between Harvard’s students and Harvard’s opportunities. Especially for people heavily involved in extracurricular activities or part-time employment, non-native English speakers, or students living thousands of miles away from home for the first time, this is a serious problem.

In short, if students don’t have the time, memory, confidence, awareness, or luck to reach out for resources themselves, they’re left floundering in Willy Wonka’s chocolate river like Augustus Gloop. The problem isn’t the quality, but the accessibility of Harvard’s advising system.

University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler won a Nobel Prize this year for thinking about these types of problems. He presents his finding in an acclaimed book, co-written with Harvard Law professor Cass R. Sunstein ’75, called “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” In brief, Thaler and Sunstein advocate policies of “libertarian paternalism” when it comes to areas of finance, health, environment, education, and even marriage. The idea is to give the typically irrational, irresponsible, undisciplined, and epistemically limited human actor just the right push to help him make the rational decision. This comes down to the architecture in which choices are presented—letting people make their own decisions, but changing the accessibility of those decisions in a way that helps people make the right choice (“right” being determined, for better or for worse, by those arranging the choices). This could mean something as simple as putting cookies slightly beyond the reach of apples in the cafeteria line. It could also mean a radical improvement of Harvard’s advising system.

The College’s advising networks need a nudge. No matter how helpful the resource offices, advising fellows, and websites may be, it won’t make a difference until we make those resources more convenient, advertised, and accessible for students. From PAFs to faculty and academic advisors, most advising conversations are opt-in, and besides academic advising holds once a semester, no systematic accountability exists. What if Harvard were to institute mandatory advising check-ins on a monthly basis? What if advisors were required to meet with students a set number of times each term to ask questions about next semester’s classes, summer opportunities, and academic plans? Such mandatory advising checkpoints may be what the College needs to help students rationally take advantage of the opportunities at their fingertips.

Even if it avoids such libertarian paternalism, Harvard can still use small nudges to make big improvements in the accessibility and organization of current resources. This could include ensuring freshmen academic advisors are actually familiar with undergraduate course offerings, providing incoming students with a concept map of introductory classes and possible academic and co-curricular tracks based on their interests, improving the communication and coordination between undergraduate resource offices, and creating a centralized resource hub—similar to Stanford’s advising website—for information and announcements about classes, summer programs, and extracurricular activities.

This isn’t about enabling students who don’t have the discipline or motivation to self-start, or about taking advantages away from students with that initiative. It’s certainly true that no one will hold our hand and guide us through the professional world once we leave Harvard. But we haven’t left Harvard yet, and we came here, in the first place, to learn. Students cannot access the opportunities they don’t know about, and if they don’t have the time, confidence, or awareness to reach out, they shouldn’t lose chances to learn. Yes, Harvard students are driven. But we need guidance—and sometimes a nudge—to take full advantage of the opportunities these four years give us.

Lauren D. Spohn ’20, a Crimson Editorial editor, is an English concentrator in Currier House.

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