The Perils of Preregistration

A system that ends shopping period is misguided and will hurt all undergraduates

A Harvard education is commonly perceived as one of the very finest in the world. And one feature that earns the envy of students at other schools is our shopping period, during which undergraduates have a week-long opportunity to sample classes before registering for them.

Yet on Jan. 29, the College’s Committee For Undergraduate Education (CUE) placed a preregistration system—initially proposed by Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences William C. Kirby at the beginning of the summer—on the agenda for the Faculty’s February meeting.

Under this new preregistration system, students would receive information about classes and spring study cards in mid-November and would be expected to register by the beginning of December.

And while proponents of the system argue that students will still have a “shopping period”—they will be allowed to add and drop classes without penalty during the beginning of the term—this system is not shopping at all.

Shopping period as it presently exists is far superior to preregistration because it better allows students to find classes that inspire and excite them. It also encourages students to visit as many classes as possible in the first week, and gives them all the available information in making a registration decision.

Preregistration inherently works to limit the amount of classes that students will visit. The administrative burden of filing add/drop forms may limit students’ interest in enrolling in many classes. Since the signatures of professors, advisers, or both, will still be required on these forms, preregistration will add a level of bureaucracy to the first week of classes. Students wishing to change all four of their courses—as presently happens quite often—would need to file eight forms, secure four professors’ signatures and visit their concentration advisers. Simultaneously, students may feel unspoken obligations to attend classes for which they register—a few months thinking about a particular class schedule may tie students to it psychologically.

In fact, for preregistration to be effective—or at least more effective than an anonymous listing by students of the classes they expect to take—requires that these trend exist. Therefore the logic behind preregistration maintaining our shopping period is fundamentally flawed: a system whose success relies upon students not drastically changing their schedules cannot simultaneously champion their flexibility in selecting classes.

Sadly, the culture of shopping will likely disappear by the end of its proposed three-to-five year test run. When the last of this year’s first-years graduate, the institutional memory of shopping period will go with them—and students will not even remember the days that Harvard was unique in its freedom to sample classes.

Preregistration would also no doubt change the way that professors treat the first week of class, giving students less information about the classes they may take. Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71 argues that “In some ways, [preregistration] puts less pressure on the faculty to do a song and dance the first week of class.” But the first week of class is not supposed to be—and has never been—a song and dance. The most important part of shopping period is the opportunity for students to see how well professors teach. An energetic and fascinating professor can make any course into a worthy elective, and this information can’t be garnered from a description or reading list.

But those are two of the major information sources that students will be using to preregister. Under the proposal, students are being asked to make decisions on classes that will affect both their undergraduate careers and future lives despite suffering from a substantial lack of information. CUE Guide ratings, short blurbs in the course catalog and course syllabi are not sufficient. And, since advising at Harvard is lackluster compared to other schools, students have even less information about classes than they would at comparable schools with preregistraion systems.

One merely needs to look at the perils of Expository Writing sectioning to see how badly a system based solely on descriptions can fail. There, first-years are forced to make assumptions about classes based on little more than a printed paragraph in a booklet, with the predictably disastrous results in terms of student satisfaction and enjoyment.

Gross noted that to provide students with information in November: “Now [professors] have to present an attractive website.” Better websites will certainly be helpful to students, but they are no replacement for seeing professors in action. Also, many of Harvard’s professors simply don’t have the inclination to keep up a website along with their full research and teaching loads. Those who do not will be penalized by lower enrollment by what is, in most cases, a minor part of a student’s class experience.

These concerns are even more pronounced for smaller classes and seminars that should be judged less by their course website and more by interaction with the course head and sitting in with one’s peers.

Without shopping, students would be less likely to preregister for new or innovative classes because of uncertainty about their quality. Visiting professors would likewise see their classes’ enrollment plummet as students flock towards reliable favorites.

Asking students to make choices about their next semester without having even finished the midterms for the current one is inherently unfair. Students already have intense mid-semester workloads; this proposal would further burden them with researching and choosing classes for a semester that is still two vacations away. Furthermore, success—or lack thereof—in the current semester commonly dictates the classes one takes in the next. For instance, first-years often decide their concentration based how well they enjoy their fall classes. Preregistration undermines the effectiveness of student decisions by providing insufficient information about their own academic achievement and comfort.

The plan is to lottery large courses during the two weeks after preregistration, allowing for teaching staffs to be selected months in advance of the semester. Because of missing information and bad timing, opportunistic students will likely sign up for classes that have lotteries, even if they are not necessarily going to enroll, just to preserve space in case they decide to take them. For students who decide in the first week that they would like to get into a class with a lottery, however, it will already be too late.

First-year students—exempt from preregistration under the proposed system—will have spots reserved for them in lotteried classes in the fall. Essentially, a first-year quota for these classes will be put in place. At worst, not enough first-years will want to take the class; at best, first-years will undergo an entirely separate lottery, a bizarre and inefficient system.

Preregistration will also hamper professors who, busy during term-time with classes and research, currently use intersession to compile syllabi and decide on the precise topics that their courses will cover. Under the new system, these decisions will have to be rushed or prepared much further in advance to get the information to students in November.

If the major cost of preregistration is that students are less likely to end up in the classes that are best suited for them, then the main benefit is that it gives professors better enrollment figures for their classes—allowing professors to hire Teaching Fellows (TFs) with more certainty. But if students are primarily preregistering for classes with lotteries or are adding and dropping as frequently as we would hope, preregistration will not greatly improve estimates.

Even if preregistation improved class size predictions—allowing for additional training of graduate TFs—there is no indication that the quality of instruction would improve. There is no evidence that undergraduates are more dissatisfied with newly-hired TFs than with those who were picked months in advance. In fact, the most common complaint among students stems from communication problems, a deficiency that needs to be addressed but will not be cured by preregistration.

The preregistration proposal soon to face the faculty would almost certainly lead to greater undergraduate dissatisfaction with classes. Courses will be filled with less enthusiastic students, administrators and professors will be busied with unnecessary bureaucracy and instituted lottery systems will be unfair. Everyone stands to lose. There may be problems with shopping period as it presently stands, but the implications of preregistration lead to disturbing repercussions for undergraduate education at Harvard. If the Faculty has respect for the needs of students, it will destroy this preregistration proposal when it has the chance.