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?