Letter to the Editor – Bidding at SAIS

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In response to the story ‘Bidding Harder to Avoid at SAIS DC’ in Issue 5

Dear Editor,

I read with interest your recent articles about the bidding system at SAIS. I must confess the system vexes me, as it does many students, and I was a little surprised to see the articles did not contain more criticism.  Thus, I thought I would fill in this gap for  The SAIS Observer.

Three major criticisms of the SAIS bidding system:

1. The system is inefficient.

Remember those Microeconomics classes you took?  Well, apparently the SAIS administration has not taken first-year microeconomics, otherwise they would realize that capping supply (limiting the available spaces in classes) creates a quantity restriction which produces a shortage and dead-weight loss.  Inefficient, pure and simple.  So what would normative economics suggest?  Remove the cap, and allow the price to rise.  Of course, the administration would argue that the bidding system is exactly that – it’s a way to ration scarce places in a price-like system.  The problem is that exchanging non-fungible points for class spaces is like barter, and encourages me to ‘over-consume’ my points, by spending many more points for subjects I don’t care about simply because there’s nothing else for which I can use them.  Classes are thus not allocated purely according to my willingness to pay but also upon my capacity to consume — never a method to induce great results!

2. The system is unfair.

Whilst the initial endowment of points is not unfair, the outcomes are; again, because students place a different value upon their points to each other, you have a distorted market which favors those who care less about their subject choice than those who care more!

3. The system is unjustifiable

I have lost count of the times I have heard people say something along the lines of “We pay so much money to come to SAIS, it is ridiculous that we can’t even take the course we want!” Really, this has got to be the nub of the whole problem.

Whilst students can be a little sympathetic to the uncertainties of class numbers and the problems of quickly hiring teachers, at some point one, does have to say – it’s your job to fix these shortages, and with most students indebting themselves to their families or government for a good portion of their life to receive a quality education, they only have so much patience for quality – ability to take the subjects you actually want to take – being persistently compromised.  Better I think to take the long-term view that genuinely solving the problem of insufficient class spaces for students – or at least getting closer
to solving it – is going to be a
good thing for SAIS’ reputation.
Michael Cornish

Second-year M.A. candidate at SAIS Washington

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