What Do I Have In Common With Hannah Montana?

I sometimes do wear a wig and too much eye makeup, but that’s not what I had in mind.

The answer to the question is that people are scalping tickets to both of our performances. There was uproar recently about the steep prices resellers were getting for her concert tickets — sometimes upwards of $2,000.

My venue is a little cozier than Montana’s. The room to which I was assigned for my undergraduate class at the University of Chicago only holds about 100 people. Only 80 students were allowed to pre-register, but another 45 showed up in hopes of getting a spot in the course. My standard way of admitting students when a class is over-subscribed is a lottery, despite the obvious inefficiencies. The problem with a lottery is that it doesn’t let in the students who care the most about winning a spot. I don’t think, however, that the university would look kindly on me auctioning the seats to the highest bidders, even if it is more efficient.

Even if I can’t sell spots in the class to whoever is willing to pay the most, it hasn’t stopped an enterprising student already enrolled in the class from giving it a shot with an online ad. The student offers his seat in the class to the highest bidder. So far, however, the prices are not yet reaching Hannah Montana territory. As of this writing, the current high bid is $0.

Prospective buyers might want to be cautious. I’m not sure being registered in a class at the university bestows upon a student the right to transfer enrollment to another student. If the administration says it is okay, I will go along with it, but I suspect it won’t fly.

In the spirit of trying to do better than just randomly assigning spots in the class, I will make the following offer: the first two students who are not currently registered for the course, but were in class on Monday, to leave a comment in response to this blog post will get guaranteed entry into the course.


In answer to responder #11, they probably are holding the Rocks for Jocks class, which is oversubscribed by several hundred, in the auditorium. (Just kidding U of C)

Mama Kangaroo

UNFAIR!!! But, good idea.


Awesome. I don't know if you read the comments for your Q&A with Dubner, but I asked this exact thing. I'm really glad to see things play out like this.

Sean P.

Prof. Levitt, a law professor at the University of Colorado had a solution to this issue which I thought was ingenious. The first week of class she assigned an extremely difficult assignment the first week. Which required research to even know what the assignment was. (Unless they were the sons or daughters of lawyers) The committed students completed the assignment, the other students dropped the class.

Student 1

Seat 1 available at a cost, with associated email address. Please email me for details.


Our entrepreneur also spelled the name of your book wrong :-(


Hey I have a revolutionary idea. Move everyone into an auditorium that seats 125 ! Think outside the box :)


Why not auction the seats with the currency something that is evenly distributed throughout the population? Perhaps something like volunteer hours at a non-profit of their choice?

ben spigel

We used to do this at my old university, because the registration system was so bad. On sign up day, the on-line system would crash hard very quickly. If you couldn't get into the classes you'd like, you'd sign up for any that you'd think would be popular. Then, you'd ask around for someone who had signed up for the class that you wanted and who wanted into a class that you're in. You'd meet up, and simultaneously drop and and get into the newly vacated seat.

Bharat Sharma

At my alma mater (IIT Delhi), there was always your GPA which decided priority for stuff in short supply - where it was books from library or option of choosing electives. The lower GPA students didn't find it too fair but it was objective.


One of my coworkers did something like this in college to make a few extra bucks. Registration at our school was done by seniority, so underclassmen had no chance of registering for popular classes. My co-worker was a like a 7th year senior and had first crack at any class he wanted. He would go to the freshman dorms and for $100, he would register for the class you wanted. Then, before the start of the semester, he would drop the class using the online system and let you immediately register for the newly empty seat.

Nicholas Weaver

What about doing a puzzle or something?

Since a lottery is random and likely to be less efficient for all involved (more likely to get someone who will drop the class), and an auction although efficient would be frowned upon, why not impose a test/puzzle/challenge set as a way of measuring a student's interest?


When I was a grad student at the UofC GSB, I had to use many 'points' to register for a Gary Becker/Kevin Murphy/Ted Snyder Economics course. One accumulated points based on how many courses you had already taken. In practice, the system awarded seniority. And, given the price of MBA courses, I did 'pay' for it ;-). I guess the undergrad program is different...

Rich Wilson

Why doesn't the admissions system have a wait list just like the registered list? First empty spot that comes up goes to the first person on the wait list. Second spot that comes up goes to the second person on the wait list. People who show up hoping to get in are told to go get on the wait list.

That also prevents one from selling their spot, except to the next person on the wait list.

U of C '90

Back in the day, we had a Chicago way of dealing with such situations. We slept out on Harper quad for the weekend before registration started. I don't recall any superstar economics classes back then, but if you wanted into War, Shakespeare, or Mammalian biology you arrived early, pitched a tent and made sure you were present for every middle of the night roll call. Students who really cared got the classes they wanted and those who didn't had a good time anyway. The U of C has lost a lot of its geek charm in recent years, but sleepout is the tradition I mourn most.


As a parent the Christmas season this year was very annoying. The problem is all of the people buying up whatever is hot in order to jack up the price. Is there some "good" that is generated by this?

Hot toys like the Nintendo Wii were scooped up as soon as the trucks could deliver them. As was obvious to anyone with an internet connection, huge numbers of these were not being bought by people who wanted to own the game, but by people who hoped to resell them on ebay or other sites for more money.

Similarly, ticket scalpers swooped in and grabbed Hannah Montana tickets with the same intention.

Personally, I think this amounts to a kind of legalized robbery. The seller is deprived of the long-term benefit they are trying to achieve with a lower than optimal price, and the buyer simply has to lose money or tell his little girl that she can't see Ms. Montana because it would be cheaper to buy a second car.



Suggestion - Have the prospective students bid with a different currency: grades.
Each student bids: "I will accept an A cutoff at X%"
Take the 80 highest x's.


Universities may not be free markets but they do come close to practicing perfect price descrimination. What industry other than higher education gets to ask you exactly what assets you have (and therefore your ability to pay)before they tell you the price of the product?

Think about it...you provide your financial information when you apply. The University evaluates how much you should be able to pay based on your assets(along with how much they want you from your scores/grades, etc.) Then you are offered a financial aid package (grants/scholorships/loans) that exactly covers the "cost" that they determine is beyond your willingness to pay. So students pay a wide variety of different rates for the same product. Genius!


At Johns Hopkins, seniors get to register before juniors can; juniors can get to register before sophomores can and so on and so forth. The reasoning behind this is that some classes aren't offered every semester or even every other semester, but are necessary for a student's major so that the student can graduate on time.

If a class is full, you can put yourself on the wait list. If a student registered for that class drops it, the first student on the wait list gets off. If a second student drops the class, then the second student gets off the wait list and so on and so forth.

If a student can't get off the wait list, but really wants to get into the class, he or she has to attend the first day of class and hope the professor will sign a waiver to allow him or her into the class, overriding the registration system.
Generally, the professor usually lets the student in, but sometimes the student might have to sit through a few classes before it actually happens. There's a risk involved, but it depends on the professor and department.


Princess Leia

A spot in your class is PRICELESS, Steve. :)

Somewhat relatedly, I want to get married in the local mission church, a beautiful setting, and consider reserving a date every so often. Problem is no groom. They book the dates pretty far out though, so sometimes I think that I could just set a date myself (with groom tbd) and later sell the reservation on ebay for big $$ if no Mr. Right actually appears.

I could probably make way more than those HM tix.