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Registration for first-semester, first-year students

Topics/tags: Registration, Grinnell, academia

At most institutions of higher education, registration for classes is both a straightforward and complex task. On the one hand, it should be straightforward: Working with their advisors, students figure out what classes are appropriate for them and indicate those preferences. However, in many cases, class slots are limited, and that makes the situation much more difficult. How do you give students the opportunity to explore broadly while also balancing different students’ needs?

Long ago, back in the days when I was an undergraduate, UofC [1] had a form of first-come, first-served system. You met with your advisor. They entered your information into the system. If there were slots available, you got into the classes. If not, you got onto the wait list. So if you wanted a popular course, like Bevington’s Shakespeare, you needed to get an early appointment with your advisor. I recall that students regularly camped out the night before appointments became available.

For as long as I’ve been at Grinnell, we’ve used a somewhat fairer and undoubtedly more complex system. We allow an arbitrarily large number of students into each class during a pre-registration period. Then we cut in some manner that seems fair. We prioritize majors in major classes. We look at students who have been closed out of a course in a previous semester. After that, some faculty fill in the remaining slots based on what they’ve heard from the students. Others ask the registrar to select students randomly. It’s not a perfect system. For example, students with more social capital [2] may be better able to advocate for slots in courses. But it’s much better than first-come, first-served and other registration policies I’ve heard.

But that process doesn’t work for first-year students. Students need to discuss their courses with their faculty advisor before the register, which means that they can’t register until they are on campus in the fall [4]. There isn’t time for the standard system.

At one time, we had students come to a giant registration event in Harris Gym [6]. Students would rush to get to the table of the first course they most wanted, then the next, then the next. I remember watching how quickly intro Philosophy filled [7]. But that system wasn’t fair. Not all students could line up early. For example, athletes and students with jobs were at a disadvantage.

So about a decade ago, the Registrar’s office developed a new approach. The basic principles were (and are) straightforward: We would place students in three rounds. Students are prioritized randomly in the first round. In the second round, students get the opposite priority as the first round; those who were placed late in the first round are placed early in the second round, and vice versa. I’m not quite sure what happens in the third round; I’m pretty sure that by that time, all of the popular classes are filled.

How does each round work? Students have made a priority list for each round. That is, in the first round, they list their first choice, then their second choice, and then their third. They do the same for all three rounds. And yes, they do it all at once.

We also have a cleanup session after the three rounds. Students have time to meet with their advisors. Then there’s a smaller Harris Gym session [8] in which students can meet with departments to add classes individually.

I’m not sure that it’s the way I’d design a system. When I advise students, I find that our analysis creates more of a decision tree. Suppose I have a student who is really interested in Biology but would also like to explore studio art. I expect that Studio Art usually closes in the first round. I probably also expect that Biology closes in the first round. They choose to prioritize Biology. But we list Studio Art second in the first round, because we know that they won’t get Studio Art if we wait until the second round. So what we do we do in round two? If the get Biology in round two, they don’t need a science course in round two. However, if the end up in Studio Art, we should put Chemistry in round two because it will be gone by round three [9].

But I don’t get to make the decisions. I’m also not sure how we’d deal with more complex decision trees efficiently. So we have the system we have. When we first started this registration system, I suggested we computerize it. The Registrar’s office wasn’t interested. So there’s a cohort of folks who have to read through all the forms and enter them in the system one by one by one.

How well does the system work? My experience is that it works pretty well. Most students get a set of courses they want. Not all students get all the courses they most want. But not all students can get all the courses they want. And, in the end, students should be exploring topics broadly and, in most cases, it doesn’t really matter whether you take a course your first semester or your second semester.

Is it an ideal system? No. Can I envision a better one? No, except to use computers, rather than humans, to do the work. Is it a relatively fair system? I think so.

What will the system look like in a decade? I have absolutely no idea.

[1] That’s the University of Chicago.

[2] Or with advisors with more social capital [3]

[3] Or experience with the system.

[4] I realize that some institutions have incoming students come to campus during the summer for some form of orientation and that students can meet with their advisors then. However, most such institutions draw primarily from the local region. Because Grinnell draws students from across the country and across the world [5], and because we admit a large number of students with limited resources who likely could not take a week away from their summer work, it would be inappropriate to require students to come to campus in the summer.

[5] 20% international students!

[6] Yeah, I know it’s not a gym. It still looks like a high-school gym.

[7] It’s not quite full this fall, but it’s close. Poor Johanna has has two 20-person sections of intro and nearly twenty in her Arendt course.

[8] With much smaller lines.

[9] Yes, I really do think about these issues when helping students put together their plan.

Version 1.0 released 2018-09-01.

Version 1.0.1 of 2019-11-17.