Bidding Difficult to Avoid at SAIS DC

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Assosciate Editor at SAIS Washington

At SAIS DC, 523 students bid on at least one class in the 2013 fall semester.

According to John Bates, assistant registrar at SAIS DC, a total of 26 courses went to bid this semester in SAIS DC. Private Equity taught by Professor Leeds had the highest clearing price — 704 points — and was also one of the most oversubscribed courses, along with Professor Matthijs’s International Trade Theory and Professor Sobol’s Financial Sector Development. In bidding history, an average of 83% of MA students and 65% of MIPP students have had to bid for courses.

Introduced during the 2005-2006 academic year, bidding was a student-led initiative. Before bidding, SAIS used to allocate overenrolled classes only to second-year students. “Then primarily first-year students came to me, suggesting to develop a system which can fairly allocate classes when we have constraints,” said Dr. John M. Harrington, the associate dean for academic affairs.

While, like at SAIS Europe, the administration has asked professors to open more sessions to avoid bidding, difficulties exist. “The problem is that professors have their own rules of how many classes they teach. You cannot just add more classes,” said Harrington.  He took Professor Dymond’s Project Finance as an example, “We cannot replicate Professor Dymond, who can only teach one class of 25 students in the spring, but we have been working hard to create more supply of the popular course.” The school hired a SAIS alumna to teach another session of Project Finance for some years, but it was not nearly as successful as Dymond’s session.

Harrington said the school has also tried to push up the limit, but some classes such as Jessup Moot Court requiresa small class. Generally, the smallest limit is set to be 18. The school persuaded Professor McLaughlin to offer another session of “Am Intelligence: Role Practice and Impact”, which successfully decreased the course’s clearing price.

Nonetheless, increasing seats would hit a ceiling, as there is no classroom big enough to host more than 85 students. Corporate Finance, with a cap of 75 students, closed when over 80 students were enrolled. The frequent use of the SAIS DC auditorium makes it an unviable option for use as a classroom.

Harrington said he has discussed the bidding system with SGA almost every past year. As an economist, Harrington considers that bidding “deals with scarcity, and it has to deal with it fairly.”

However, according to the result of SAIS 2013 student satisfaction survey attended by over 70% of SAIS students, the bidding system received one of the lowest mean satisfaction values, which was 2.96 at the scale of 0 to 5. When asked his view on the bidding system, Aggelos Aggelou, a SAIS DC second-year, said: “Absolutely hate it…We students all pay tuitions, why can’t we be guaranteed to take courses we like?”

“That is exactly why we want to have a fair (bidding) system,” Harrington responded. “There will be constraints in every school”. He stated that high-quality courses with brilliant professors are always in short supply, and that as first and second-year students are all paying the same tuition, first-years should not be excluded.

Bidding alternatives at other graduate programs

How do other graduate schools allocate seats in limited enrollment classes? The Law School of New York University, Columbia Business School and UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business use a similar bidding system to SAIS’, where students get 1,000 points each semester for electives, as core courses do not require bidding. UC San Diego uses a first-come-first-serve system.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School’s system is an interesting case. They used to have a sophisticated bidding process divided into 10 rounds or opportunities to not only buy, but also sell seats. Such a system was easily ‘gamed’, as students would buy seats in required core courses and then sell them back as prices rose. Some skillful students could accumulate a fortune of bidding points consequently, while others had to spend a fortune on required courses.

Given that scarce resources ended up in the hands of few students, this fall Wharton changed to a new system called “Course Match,” in which there is no more bidding, no buying and selling and no multiple rounds. Students report their preferences for courses during a single round, and then the new system provides every student the best course schedule the student can afford, which maximizes her reported total value given her available budget. Professor Gerard P. Cachon and Professor Fred R. Sullivan in Wharton Business School said in an interview with the Wharton Journal: “The new system operates like this imaginary auction system. The system buys you your best schedule based on the preferences you report because the system knows your course preferences and their clearing prices.”


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