The Trials and Tribulations of a Bidding Student

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When they arrived on campus in August and September, few SAIS students knew that the process of selecting classes would involve what is essentially a blind auction. Even fewer realized just how many classes would be on the bidding block in Bologna this fall.

The bidding system has many advantages for both the students and the administration in terms of organization. For instance, it avoids the rush and anxiety of the “first come, first serve” systems of other universities, where the website can crash under a huge demand and in doing so, leave students frustrated and unable to register for the classes they wanted. The bidding system also allows students to have more flexibility in choosing their courses, as they can “shop” the first few lectures before making a definitive choice.

As such, the bidding system’s shortcomings seem to come primarily from the fact that all classes are subject to it and that often, not enough is done to take the needs of students who have fewer classes offered for their concentration into consideration. However, it is hard to find alternative solutions.

During this fall semester registration period at SAIS Europe, it was not abnormal that some classes were oversubscribed and had to go to bid. What was surprising for many students however, was the number of classes that went to bid.

In total, seven classes went to bid: Policies and Politics of the American Emergency State, Statistics, Public Sector Economics, Migration and Security, International Peacekeeping, Multiculturalism and the Human Rights of Women and Contemporary Russian Politics. In addition, International Trade Theory, which was not expected to go to bid, only narrowly avoided being added to the list by Professor Michael Plummer invoking his abilities as director of SAIS Europe to allow a last minute expansion of the class. What accentuated this problem was that more than one of these classes appeared on the bid list at the very last minute.

More than one student has argued that the bidding system seems to be a bit out of place, especially when it comes to the core courses. Bidding for core courses like economics shouldn’t happen, as students will almost certainly need their bidding points for other courses they might want to take either next semester or in D.C. In addition, it only seems fair that everything should be done to accommodate students in the core courses as they are compulsory.

However, not all of the administration agrees with this interpretation. A major part of the reason for these small sizes is that the faculty had voted in favor of limiting the number of students in a seminar class to 20 students, as many students had indicated a frustration with not being able to have discussion in a class with too many people.

To this, an anonymous student responded, “those professors are not paying our tuition.” SAIS Europe student Chris Phalen concurred: “The opinions of the previous class should not be taken into consideration when setting rules for next year’s bidding, including ours. Each class will have different aggregated interests, major requirements, etc., so basing the coming year on a past year doesn’t work. There should be one clear, consistent set of rules for each year, communicated in the summer, if not earlier. Professor opinions should not lead to a rule change, unless a class is [over] 20 people consistently, year to year. We pay tuition.”

What frustrated some of the students who had to bid was the fact that a few classes were oversubscribed by just one or two people. This led to frantic Facebook group discussions, emails imploring professors to expand the size of the classes and pleading for classmates with less interest in a course to drop it.

SAIS Europe student Sarah Hutson pointed out that, “professors should be able to override and let one or two extra people into a class, if they so choose, rather than making everyone bid. Twenty-one or twenty-two [students is] not that different from twenty for many classes”.

When competition for those few spots got tight, students have had to draw upon the game theory that they learned in pre-term microeconomics in order to predict what their peers would bid and what the minimum price clearing bid would be.

SAIS Europe student Yu Xing asked if “it is feasible to charge the clearing price instead of the price of our bid?”

However, even as students hone their strategies, there are coordination problems. Every semester, some students only drop the oversubscribed classes at the last minute. This fall, the phenomenon led some students to waste bidding points on a class that they would have ended up getting into anyway. Unfortunately, due to an ironclad rule in the bidding system that does not allow changing the amount of points that a student bids, these students were not able to get their points back.

SAIS Europe student Savannah Blalock said, “if people drop the class after bidding starts, they should tell you so you don’t have to waste your bid points.”

On a more practical level, Jamil Wyne pointed out that there is one way to easily mitigate confusion in the future. He suggested, “if the registrar could hold a brief session or provide some basic information to both faculty and students on the bidding process, that would be very helpful. Everyone, including the faculty members I spoke with, seemed unclear on how the process actually worked.”

Wyne was not the only one with this idea. In fact, many students struggled to understand the intricacies of the bidding system and even ended up bidding too much or accidentally typing in the wrong amount of bid points.

Ultimately, despite the administration’s optimism about the system’s virtues, the bidding system and the course registration system are far from perfect. In the words of adherents of utilitarianism, the current system is far from “achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”