Sunday, August 24, 2014



This time of year, as students are looking for that last section that makes a section perfect, I start hearing requests for waitlists.  Wouldn’t it be great, they ask, if popular sections had formal waitlists, so students wouldn’t have to check the computer obsessively to see if someone dropped?  

If you only look at the single, isolated case, the question makes sense.  But in thinking about scaling it up, I start to understand why we don’t.

First, some context.  At community colleges, a substantial proportion of enrollment occurs in the last couple of weeks before classes start.  (Some colleges even extend that into the semester, though we don’t.)  This isn’t a SLAC that can close the enrollment period for Fall in May, and then devote the summer to sanding off any rough edges.  And as with many colleges, we have timeslots that fill completely (late morning to early afternoon, Monday through Thursday), and timeslots that don’t.  A popular class in a prime time slot will fill well in advance.  And we don’t make a habit of stuffing extra students into sections, or of pressuring faculty to let caps slide.  I know some places do that, but we don’t, and I don’t want to start now.

Context matters.  With so many students pouring in during the last few weeks, the mechanics of any possible waitlist get complicated.  Let’s say that a coveted seat in the Tuesday/Thursday morning Intro to Psych opens up.  Right now, whoever jumps on it first, wins.  With a waitlist, presumably, you couldn’t just do automatic enrollments; people make complicated plans, and one change can set of a cascade.  So you’d have to notify, and then give a reasonable window during which the person has to either take the spot or forfeit it.  If s/he turns it down, you’d move to the next on the list and reset the clock.

If there’s no penalty or charge for the waitlist, enterprising students could sign up for many different ones, and then play them off against each other for the best schedule.  With no consequence for taking waitlist spots that you don’t really mean, we’d introduce a much higher level of uncertainty in scheduling with little payoff.  With a “first one wins” approach, it’s much less likely that students could game the system with registrations they don’t intend to fulfill.

The issue gets even stickier when financial aid enters the picture.  Aid packages are based, in part, on the number of credits taken.  With greater volatility would come even greater need for speedy repackaging of aid at the last minute.  Given the scrutiny financial aid programs are under, and the consequences for errors, we’d have to expend significant resources beefing up our financial aid staff just for this.

Of course, we could give the waitlist some credibility by charging students for it.  A student who might take a “what the hell” approach and join a list for free might think twice if it cost, say, fifty bucks.  But that would violate a sense of fairness, given how strapped many of our students are.  (Two-thirds are Pell-eligible.)  Financial aid wouldn’t cover that, so students who could pony up fifty bucks would have yet another advantage over the many who couldn’t.  Yes, it would be more “efficient,” but nobody said fairness maximized efficiency.  It would violate the culture.

At some universities, I’ve heard of professors being given chits that they can allocate to prospective students to let them in to “full” classes.  The idea is to leave it up to their judgment.  As with the initial waitlist proposal, I could see an idea that makes sense in microcosm becoming a disaster at scale.  Without written criteria, I could imagine all sorts of bias creeping in.  Professor Smith lets in Johnny but not Jimmy.  Johnny is white and Jimmy is black.  Multiply that by a few, and the entire college is in a wide world of hurt.  (On the flip side, I could envision contexts in which professors would feel pressure, whether real or imagined, to use every chit.  At that point, course caps have become moot.)  Case-by-case can work when the issue is qualifications, rather than scarcity.  When it’s scarcity, I see things getting ugly fast.  Whatever else we do, we need to treat students similarly to each other.

The only way I could imagine waitlists working in our context would be if they enrolled a student automatically.  That would get around the “what the hell” problem.  But students make plans while they’re waiting for something to come through; upending those plans, even in the name of something they might have preferred initially, comes at a cost.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen ways to make waitlists work in a context similar to ours?

Our Banner system allows for student waitlisting through the first bill purge in early August. After that, it's first come, first seat. It helps one or two students per section.
At the Very Large R1 I attended grad school at, if you (not enrolled) showed up on the first day and someone (enrolled) didn't, you got the spot. I took advantage of it for rec classes a few times.
At the Very Large R1 I attended grad school at, if you (not enrolled) showed up on the first day and someone (enrolled) didn't, you got the spot. I took advantage of it for rec classes a few times.
We have waitlists that work in two ways:

If a spot opens before the semester begins, the student at the front of the waitlist gets an email and has 24 hours to respond to accept their spot. If they don't, they lose their priority.

When the semester begins, if there are empty spots in the class, students who show up on the first day and are on the electronic waitlist are prioritized first (in their order on the waitlist). Then if there is additional space, it's given out to the other random students who show up on the first day.

Also, students may only register for one section of a class, and this includes being on a waitlist. So we don't have the problem of students signing up for lots of classes that they don't intend on taking.

The problem we do have, though, is that this creates volatility in the number of credits a student is signed up for at the start of the semester, which impacts and/or delays financial aid. But we'd have the same problem if student didn't have a waitlist and still waited until the first day of the semester to sign up, so I don't see this as any worse.
Both the R1 university I teach at and the local community college use waitlists. The waitlists at the university are fairly new, and I'm not sure whether they are really working well. But the basic idea is as others have said—students who show up on the first day of class can bump those who don't, in waitlist order.

At the community college, there are generally so many no shows and drops in the first two weeks, that students who are on the wait list and show up for the first two weeks of class generally get in (except in lab and studio classes).

Having a system where students have to spend all their time checking for openings in classes is really quite unfair to the working students (who are the majority at our community college).
Couldn't students get, say, 2 free waitlists per term and any extra ones they'd have to pay a fee?
One other option is to just drop anyone who is absent on the first day, but then you must get all sorts of "life intervenes" complaints and reduced retention.

Has anyone studied the success rate of students who try to register too late and end up on a waitlist?

Does actually showing up for class on the first day decrease the chance that they are similar to other students who are late (or really late) getting around to registering for classes? I can see where that is a possibility.

That said, I have to wonder how schools that do this handle the over capacity students. What if a registered student can't get a seat because the room is filled with kids hoping to get in? Are there registered students who don't get a syllabus?
Our waitlists have the following features:

1. You can only waitlist two sections (total) at a time.

2. You can't waitlist a section of a course that you are already in. If you are in English Comp, you can't waitlist English Comp.

3. You can't waitlist two of the same thing. So if you are on the waitlist for American History at 10am, you can't also get on the waitlist for American History at 11am.

4. Once a spot opens, you are automatically enrolled in the class.

(Feature 4 was kind of awesome there for a while, as if you withdrew from the institution, the database call cleared out your enrolled schedule but not your waitlist sections. And then the "automatic enroll" feature was coded in such a way that it didn't check anything when it enrolled you. And if this happened after the "make sure everyone paid" database purge went through, you could be re-enrolled in school without your knowledge.)
There are lots of ways to deal with waitlists that can solve at least some of the issues you cite. You can limit the number of courses a student can waitlist. You can prevent a student from waitlisting more than one section of a class. You can prevent a student from waitlisting a class that they are already in a different section of. You can set some classes to have waitlists and others to not have waitlists (this can help deal with the "popular section" problem - if none of the sections of a course have waitlists, students might be motivated to sign up for the open section rather than getting on the waitlist of the full section).
None of this solves the financial aid issue, but as with most things it's a trade-off.
Our mid-size university (8-9k students) eschews them so students camp out WebAdvisor to see if a space opens up before the drop/add deadline. It's less stressful than when they petitioned us to overload them into the course (a difficult proposition given that room capacity is often a hard, practical limit with no more seats in the classroom).

Amusingly, the largest university in the country with some 45-50k students, uses waitlists extensively. You are limited to the number of courses in which you can enrol but I believe you can add a lot of others to the waitlist. I have seen waiting lists running well over a hundred names for a course, and there is apparently a lot of churn-through.

Using waitlists doesn't end the practice of seat-selling where students make private arrangements after the waiting list period ends to sell their seats. (Apparently this is engineered by the seller dropping the course while the buyer is online in the registration system to immediately take advantage of the free space.)
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