Oversubscribed Classes

I make a brief cameo appearance in this Chronicle of Higher Education article about how universities allocate students to popular courses.

It mentions the student who tried to sell her spot in my class, thereby bringing down the wrath of the University administration. I liked her approach, though, so we’ve now got her employed doing research assistance for the sequel to Freakonomics.

The first problem set is now due in my class, and it’s a hard one. I suspect there are plenty of students wishing they had sold their spot in the class right about now.


Here's one more hoping to see what the problem set is!


NYU was a simple matter of how many credits you had vs. everybody else. Obviously there was plenty of begging and bargaining, but I never had a problem getting into a class I needed, even after the semester had started. Also everything was online, including what classes you had left to take for your degree and they updated instantly once you added that class to your schedule. I guess the only setback is being an economics major at nyu, everyone assumes you went to stern, rather than the more appropriate college of arts and sciences.


I never had a problem getting into a class. Usually it was a matter of timing. In the other cases, my professors would sign an override because they knew a significant number of students would drop out after that first difficult problem set. Of course, both my schools did a pretty good job of allocating seats to prevent shortages in the first place.

Adam W.

I can confirm that I have seen something similar. When I was in engineering school, there was a particularly popular elective (Design of Steel Structures) that quite a few people wanted to get into.

One particular individual, a graduate student who was working during the day and had some money saved up, offered $500 for a seat in the class.


There was a professor at the University of Prince Edward Island that had an innovative approach to overcrowding in his class - he offered a B- to any student that dropped out. He had 20 takers, but got suspended for his efforts.



The Wharton method absolutely blows me away.

Half the time I didn't even know what classes I needed to take, and once ended up in a class, that I thought I could and needed to graduate, but still hadn't completed all of the nine prerequisites.

Sometimes I was getting into required classes mere hours before the first class, and I never knew anything about the professors unless I had them before.


Would it be possible to post your problems here? So we could take a look at them?

Fisher does a pretty good job for their graduate program when it comes to making classes available and what requirements are needed.

Lyn LeJeune

Dang! I wish I'd thought of that when I shimmied into that math class way back in the Stone Age. Two stones divided by the geographical distance from the cave man.... And then when I went on to teach college (history)and every semester I could have picked out about 5 students who I would have been more than happy to encourage selling their places. Yes, my class was in great demand. History is very funny and so are the people in it.

I think that young woman was very inventive and should have been congratulated. Entrepreneurship is about getting along in the world and seizing opportunities...as long as you don't hurt anyone but ripping off that ladder rung and beating the guy above you to a pulp. Didn't we use to say climb over the guy? How far we have come.

"When Ignatius J. Reilly Worked at the New Orleans Public Library and I Went Crazy at the Port-O-Call," and more great stuff to help rebuild New orleans libraries at www.beatitudesinneworleans.blogspot.com



In my undergrad experience there was always a handful of students who "fellaway" mid-semester. I'm highly doubtful UPenn was taking into account average drop rates for classes in each department when setting class sizes. Seems to me, it would be best to slightly oversell the class, which would allow for a full class to still be in place come the end of the semester.


I know of several MBA programs that have bidding systems where students are allocated points to bid for classes. I believe at both Wharton and Chicago GSB there is even multiple rounds with trading and speculation. At Kellogg it is a fixed round -- no after market. Not sure about other schools.


The bidding system seems most "fair" -- let people prioritize in a measurable way.

I guess I'm glad I chose to go to a small, exclusive school. I always heard nightmares from my friends at big state school of auditorium classes with TAs that couldn't speak English. Every class I was in had under 50 students (most had 20-30) and the prof knew everyone's name. Registration was done by year only, so if you were a sophomore you'd probably not get into the highly sought after classes without the instructor's permission.


Don't post your problems here unless you want the solutions posted, as well.


I can't believe that someone actually tried to sell their place in a class. I am one of those people that sit in front of a computer all day during drop/add to get into a full (high demand) class. The funny thing is that I would much rather just pay someone to get their spot in the class and get it over with. The girl was a genious because I am a thrifty person and can even look at spending that money as a good investment.

U of C student

I am one of the students in Professor Levitt's class and having just turned the problem set this past Monday, I can say it was one of the most challenging things I've done in the school. My partners and myself worked non-stop for over 12 hours on it, from 3:00 Pm to 4:30 AM, not including the time spent "finishing it up" from 11:30 Am to 5:00 Pm (The class was half empty on Monday, presumably because everybody was still working on solving the problems before 5). Although not an economics major myself (Political Science and English), I still found the questions useful in helping me to build a conceptual framework around how to research and theorize about public policy initiatives. We were asked (following a set of certain assumptions, of course) to determine how much the government should charge for cocaine if its only motive was profit (i.e. it was a profit-maximizing firm)and to also determine the cost of cocaine if we took into account the social costs would incur on society. And then we were required to justify our answers in terms of everything we've studied in the class (economic approach to crime)

Although no doubt a sizable chunk of the class registered for the class just to say they took a course taught by the "freakonomics guy," I don't necessarily agree that's somehow bad. In an ideal world, we would all be taking classes by professors whose field of expertise was interesting enough to hold our interest, regardless of whether they were famous or not. The only difference here is that Professor Levitt's work is not only famous, but also incredibly interesting because of how it calls into questions so many of our assumptions about social and economic policy. Additionally, what's most appealing to me, from a non-economics point-of-view, is the way Levitt's research tends to lean more into the direction of sociology with economic terminology and quantitative analysis thrown in for good measure. I think this is why, for example, Professor Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh have such a good academic relationship together: Both understand that their academic disciplines (economics and sociology, respectively) need each other if they are to arrive at a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of human behavior.

I am not going to say that I'm confident about the problem set. Almost everyone I've talked to are completely certain they didn't do too well. However, I am glad I took the course. And I'm glad that Professor Levitt used his ability to attract students to force us to get to thinking about economics in an unconventional, but ultimately rewarding way.



So Stata is the statistical software of choice? I'd like to hear what you think about Stata vs. SAS and if it is necessary now to learn both of them so that you are covered in both industry and academia. Thanks.


I suppose it would be too difficult for the schools in question to weed out their low-demand classes and replace them with higher quality offerings.

Cyril Morong

How could you sell a seat in a class? I assume that you have to get officially registered. Was the seller going tell the buyer "I will be dropping the course at exactly such and such time, so log on and register right away?" How exactly would the transfer of "ownership" be made? Anyway, who could possibly be hurt by this?

Can students at U of C register online? Or do you have to physically go the the registars office? If you could sell your spot in the class, it seems like alot of students would either login to register sooner than normal or stand in line. But by selling their seats, they are providing a service to students whose time is more valuable. It is just like people waiting in line for lobbyists in Washington. It seems like a win-win situation and just having a policy that allows this is a good economics lesson itself.


Seems to border on fraud that a university will admit a student and then not deliver the class(es) required for degree completion. But I bet professors enjoy over-demand sections just like airlines over-book flights. Offering money for a bump is wrong?


UCLA has a good method for registration. Each student is required to register twice. During the 'first pass', a student is allowed to register for 10 units (2 or 3 classes) and then a week or so later the student may register for the remainder of his or her classes. This helped ensure that all of the 'good' classes were not quickly snatched up by the students with the favorable registration times.


Could you please post the problem? Would love to know what you set in comparison to my lecturers!