The Shopping Period

The University should use market mechanisms to allocate seats in Gen Ed classes

Ariana Kam

This semester, as many as 400 students shopped Folklore and Mythology 128: “Fairy Tales and Fantasy Literature,” a Gen Ed class with a capacity of 31 students. For the second consecutive year, the course’s professor had to lottery the class’s precious seats to 31 lucky students.

The overcrowding problem of “Fairy Tales and Fantasy Literature” is far from unique. Due to lack of qualified teaching fellows and classroom size, students have to compete for class spots. In departmental electives, professors can require students to submit an application, sometimes giving preference to students who are more prepared or simply have a higher GPA. But a one-for-all application that focuses on prior experience goes against the mission of the Gen Ed program to introduce students to a broad range of academic pursuits. It is also impractical that Professor Tatar, or professors of other popular Gen Ed classes, should read hundreds of applications.

Given these constraints, a lottery seems like a fair and painless solution. However, the solution is anything but fair. Those who plan to spend their careers on stem cell research, for instance, face the same competition as anyone who wants to take Government 1093: Ethics, Biotechnology, and the Future of Human Nature simply because it is an easy Gen Ed. Any fair distribution of class spots should take student interest into consideration.

Being an unabashed capitalist, I initially had the idea of establishing a price for spots in competitive classes at Harvard. Those who are willing to pay more in tuition can have priority in choosing classes. Those who do not wish to pay more still have access to the non-lotteried classes. The system is fair in the sense that those who demand a better education will pay a higher price for it, but I will leave it to the reader to decipher why such a solution is morally repulsive.

Alternatively, the administration can introduce an incentive system without monetary exchange. Consider a system where students receive 100 “class points” upon arrival at the college, which they can use at their disposal to “bid” for classes. If a class is capped at a fixed number, such as 45, the highest 45 bidders will gain enrollment in the class. Each enrolled student will pay an amount in class points equal to the lowest amount bid by an enrolled student. In other words, the “price” of a spot in a class is determined by how many class points students are willing to use.


Unlike the lottery, the point system ensures that each competitive Gen Ed class is filled with students who have the greatest interest in the class. The system is also fair, in the sense that students have equal access to all Harvard classes, even though access to a specific class may be limited if the student is not interested enough.

The point system could also be a useful tool for the administration. The price of a class is a reflection of the imbalance between the supply and demand of a particular class or Gen Ed category. The demand for Gen Ed classes is difficult to change, but the administration can change the supply of Gen Ed classes in the future by increasing the number of Gen Ed classes in the same category or working with other Gen Ed professors to improve the quality of their class.

Of course, this system could be stressful and dissatisfying in other ways. The remorse from bidding one point too low is perhaps greater than the remorse of not getting into a lotteried class. Distributing classes between years and Gen Ed categories can also be tricky, especially for students with broad interests. After all, the point system depends on the ability of students to plan wisely, in order to collectively solve the administration’s impossibly difficult allocation problem.

Ultimately, Harvard must create a sensible Gen Ed program that takes student interest into consideration without sacrificing its mission of educating students in broad disciplines. Harvard also needs to guarantee the quality of teaching in the Gen Ed program. Before such tasks are accomplished, students will inevitably flock to well-taught classes with enrollment caps. There will necessarily be a scarcity of resources. We can give the pretense of blind equality by treating all demand equally, or we can use the greatest tool of economics—incentives—to allocate these scarce resources. I believe the latter is a more efficient and fairer solution.

Jonathan Z. Zhou ’14 is an applied mathematics concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.


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