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Old 02-14-2008, 09:37 PM
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Who's on first?

Class Warfare: When Getting In Is the Hardest Part

Nearly a quarter of seniors in public high schools took at least one Advanced Placement test last year, and 15.2 percent of them earned a score high enough to qualify for college credit, the College Board says. But gains by African-Americans have remained slow.


Every college has a hot-ticket class. Maybe it's the subject matter (serial killers! sailing!) or maybe it's a celebrity professor (George Tenet! Toni Morrison!). Whatever it is, everybody wants to get in.

And, of course, not everybody can. So how do you decide who gets a seat and who's disappointed?

If you're Patricia de Castries, you make everybody sleep outside your door. Ms. de Castries, assistant director of the Stanford Language Center, teaches a wildly popular wine-tasting course at the university. Often more than 100 would-be connoisseurs compete for the 60 spots, so on the eve of registration students show up with pillows and sleeping bags, hoping to get their names on the list. "It's tough," says Ms. de Castries, "but if you want to be in the class, you do it."

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they have, not surprisingly, turned to technology. For its humanities requirement, MIT asks students to rank the courses they'd most like to attend. If your No. 1 class is not in demand, then you're in. But if that class is overenrolled, a computer program chooses randomly among all the students who ranked that class as their first choice.

The system had a cameo in Doonesbury a couple of years ago. A character at MIT fails to get into her top choice, then complains that the lottery isn't fair. "Perhaps you should consider a course in probability," the professor replies dryly.

The lottery is supposed to be equitable and impersonal, according to Bette K. Davis, office director of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. But that's not always how it works out. Ms. Davis says that often students who lose the lottery wheedle their way in by talking directly to the professor.

Earlier this semester, a student in an economics course at the University of Chicago tried to sell her spot online. It wasn't just any old economics course, though. The class was taught by Steven D. Levitt, co-author of the enormous best seller Freakonomics and as close to paparazzi-bait as a college professor is likely to get.

"How much is your education worth to you?!?" the ad asked. "E-mail me with your best offer."

The ad was removed soon after it came to the attention of university officials. A Chicago spokeswoman says the university "does not endorse" students' selling their seats in classes.

By contrast, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school actually encourages it. Wharton auctions spots to its M.B.A. students, allowing them to bid for their classes. They don't use real money; instead, students are each given 5,000 points when they enroll and 1,000 more for every credit they earn. An average course might sell for a few hundred points while the most sought-after ones can top 10,000.

Wharton isn't alone in using an auction. Several other business schools and at least one undergraduate institution Colorado College let students bid.

But Wharton takes it one step further, allowing students to sell their courses (for points) to other students. It's all done through a Web site. Buyers and sellers are anonymous, so buddies can't make deals. Wharton also uses a second-price auction in which the highest bidder wins, but he or she pays the amount of the second-highest bid. Economists like the second-price auction because they think it encourages more honest bidding.

In other words, Wharton has what may be the most sophisticated, and most confusing, course-registration system ever devised.

And, arguably, the fairest. "It's capitalism gone nuts, but it's also absolute socialism because everyone is born with the same number of points," says Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy.

Because students can place a numerical value on a class, they're better able to express their preferences. If one student bids 500 points and another bids 2,000, then it's clear, in theory, who wants it more.

Students regularly buy classes they don't want to take in hopes of selling them, making a profit, and using those points to buy classes they really do want.

Some take it all very seriously, spending hours strategizing and trading, according to Peggy Lane Bishop, a deputy vice dean and the administrator in charge of the auction. They study data from previous semesters and try to outsmart their classmates.

Sometimes they outsmart themselves. Students will, for instance, bid on a Friday-afternoon section of a class, assuming that it will be cheaper than the Tuesday section because most students want to get away for the weekend. That will drive the price up until it's higher than the more-desirable Tuesday section.

Serban Suvagau bought a seat in a finance course this semester for 200 points. A couple of days later, he sold it for 900 points. Mr. Suvagau, a second-year student, wasn't really trying to make a profit. He just changed his mind. But he's made some shrewd moves in the past, and he began this semester with a solid 7,800 points.

Not everyone is so fortunate. A few poor bidding decisions can mean getting stuck with a slate of less-desirable classes.

Mr. Suvagau thinks an auction is more fair and efficient than, say, a lottery, but the process can still be annoying, especially if you get outbid. "Complaining about the auction is a big pastime," he says.

It's common knowledge among students which classes sell for a premium and which can be picked up for a song. Professors with more star power command higher prices. It also has to do with how many seats are available. If you restrict your class to 10 students, your price will most likely rise.

Naturally, professors keep an eye on the auction, too. "All professors are egomaniacs, so we care," Mr. Wolfers says. "But we wouldn't admit it."

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Old 02-14-2008, 09:40 PM
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It amuses me that an American school has an economics course that' so popular students could auction seats for it, but that the university wont allow that free reign of free enterprise. They must teach irony there, too!

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Old 02-15-2008, 12:03 AM
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Originally Posted by Botnst View Post
"It's capitalism gone nuts, but it's also absolute socialism"
Hear that capitalists? You're really socialists. Ha ha!
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Old 02-15-2008, 12:06 AM
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Originally Posted by Botnst View Post
So how do you decide who gets a seat and who's disappointed?
I think using the grades is a good way. 400 spots? Top 400 applicants. Race, sex, sexual orientation, etc, etc gets tossed out of the window. If there is a tie, check application receipt date.
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Old 02-15-2008, 12:39 PM
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gee, lets see how about adding more of the "hot" classes to the schedule and drop the dud classes.
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Old 02-15-2008, 01:03 PM
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Originally Posted by Botnst View Post
It amuses me that an American school has an economics course that' so popular students could auction seats for it, but that the university wont allow that free reign of free enterprise. They must teach irony there, too!

Not only irony, but also washing and drying, too . . .

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