Seats for sale: Why UA should auction courses

Ask a professor about class conflict and you'll probably get an earful on dialectical materialism and the plight of the worker in capitalist society.

Ask a UA student and they'll have one word: ""WebReg.""

Students have been engaged in priority registration for next semester's courses since late last month. But once WebReg finally opens to all students this Saturday, the delicate dance of creative scheduling will begin in earnest.

Seasoned students know the steps by heart. Log into Student Link before sunrise to hunt for open spots. Open scores of windows and furiously reload until your mouse - or your will - finally breaks. Strongarm a friend into holding a spot in a popular course or negotiate a swap more convoluted than a North Korean prisoner exchange.

But as long as demand for a limited number of seats continues to surpass supply, some students will always be left locked out of the courses they need most, no matter how many clever tricks they try. Their only recourse? Crowding classrooms in the early days of the semester, clamoring for professors' signatures on drop-add forms.

As class availability dwindles and tuition continues to rise, it's only a matter of time before enterprising students start selling their spots on eBay. Here's hoping that day comes soon, because auctioning off courses is exactly what our overburdened registration system needs.

Auctions operate on a simple principle that is both equitable and efficient: Limited resources should be allocated to those who value them most. In the case of course registration, with too many students competing for too few seats, auctioning courses rather than openly offering them is a perfect fit.

The idea's not so crazy. Course auctions have been used for years at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School, where students are even allowed to speculate and resell seats in order to turn a profit and pick up spots in more popular classes. It's a fitting form of registration for a school dedicated to turning out financial tycoons and market mavens, but in simplified form it could work just as well here at the UA.

Here's how such a system might operate: Each student is given some number of virtual dollars to bid on courses - say $2,500, roughly equal to the cost of one semester of in-state tuition. Of course, there's no need to use ""dollars"" - points or credits or widgets or any sort of quantifiable unit would be equally effective - but conceptual currency will help students make their own value judgments about just how much a course is actually worth.

Then, seats in each course would be auctioned online in a simple sealed-bid auction, with the lowest winning price considered the market-clearing price. If you bid above it, you get your money back. It would be as simple as online auctions like eBay - except in some cases, students might score courses for prices slightly lower than their actual bids.

Every student would begin with the same amount of funny money to allocate towards classes, making the system utterly egalitarian. But the freedom to place different bids, and the allocative power of the market, would ensure that classes go where they are needed most.

Students already face registration trade-offs, and therefore prioritize the courses they hope to take. With no more than 19 credits available for enrollment through WebReg, they must first target the most important. That means most students rank potential courses and race against the clock to grab those that they value most.

An auction system would allow more nuance than mere ranking. By allowing students to assign dollar values to each course, preferences would be made clearer - and more of them could ultimately be satisfied, alleviating both the glut of attempts to add courses at the beginning of the semester and the slow trickle of drops during the first month of classes. Sure, some students would still be outbid for the courses they want - but students would have far greater control over the courses they choose.

Auctions would also offer valuable feedback to faculty and administrators. Clearing prices for various courses could indicate where to open more sections or which classes to eliminate. In some cases, prices could be driven up by popular instructors or appealing course contents - but a detailed look at student bids would give more information than can currently be gleaned from WebReg.

Yes, there would be losers in a course auction system. But just as many students are screwed by the current system of class allocation. Plus, policies could be put into place to mitigate the vagaries of unbridled course capitalism. Tiered registration could continue via several sets of auctions, ensuring that the most senior students get access to courses first.

Restrictions on bidding based on major could still be enforced. And an auction could even offer opportunities to create new incentives for student success by rewarding those with good grades with more cash to spend on auctions. Of course, none of this is strictly necessary - but it could offer wary administrators a modicum of control.

Auctioning seats in courses would make registration simpler and saner for everyone involved. Until then, you can find my schedule for sale on Craigslist.

Connor Mendenhall is a sophomore majoring in economics and international studies and is the opinions editor at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.


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