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Monday, January 25, 2010

On class sign ups, course caps, and drop/add

Having taught classes at three universities, I have yet to see a system of class sign ups, course caps, and drop/adds that comes anywhere close to being optimal. Perhaps the general way we approach these situations is flawed. Every semester some courses do not fill (some don't come even come close to filling) while others have a line for entry that could go around the block (if we still did the wait in line method, rather than online sign ups).

During peak times (about two weeks before winter break and a week after) I receive about 5-10 emails a day requesting an 'override,' ' variance,' or 'petition" - or whatever request process a given school uses. Most come with a very sad or urgent story attached. In some ways, this makes one feel a bit like the person handing out life jackets on the Titanic - and it seems that no one appears happy with the process. In some schools this situation is amplified by "shotgun" registration strategies whereby students only intend to take 9-12 hours, but sign up for 15-18 hours and then attend the first few classes and in the eleventh hour drop the 2 courses they like least - this usually results in a few spots being left open and no one willing to take them due to the late drop.

Don't get me wrong - in the larger world of annoyances, this one is actually pretty darn small. But it's hard to imagine that some bright academic or administrator (or student) hasn't come up with a better way of handling this process. Steven Levitt notes that NYU Law uses a Coase Theorem approach, although this particular system may have some of its own problems. What process does your institution use? How well does it work?

Posted by Jeff Yates on January 25, 2010 at 08:46 AM | Permalink


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Michigan Law uses a complex system involving multiple rounds, preference ranking, and a limited number of priorities that serve as trump cards each student may use. It's complex, students complain, but I think it's pretty close to optimal.

Posted by: Jason | Jan 25, 2010 2:48:45 PM

Yes, it can be as basic as whether it's embarrassing to engage in the ticket trading that the NYU system requires.

I find this to be an interesting way of getting a class to understand how fragile a Coaseian state can be. I take a vote in the class on how many people are willing to send a meal back in a restaurant if they aren't perfectly satisfied. Even among law students, I generally find that only a small portion of the class is willing to do so. If I ask why to the passive ones, they will say something about embarrassment or the energy it takes, or the fact that they don't like confrontation, all of which are transaction costs.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jan 25, 2010 12:10:39 PM


That was my take on the NYU system from what was available online.

Posted by: Jeff Yates | Jan 25, 2010 11:00:45 AM

I've used the NYU example to explain to students why the Coase Theorem contains that critical proviso "in the absence of transaction costs." Apparently markets sprang up in all sorts of goods and services. And we still don't know if they were efficient.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jan 25, 2010 9:47:07 AM

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