If not rationing by price, then what?

In the face of protests, California’s Santa Monica College has suspended plans to charge four times more for high-demand classes. But with demand exceeding supply of classroom seats — and no money to hire more instructors — that leaves rationing by wait list, the academic equivalent of Soviet bread lines.

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  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    In Mother Santa Monica… classes take you!

    • Ba-dum-bum.

      If not by price then by political influence. What else is there?

      • Sean Mays says:

        How about a point based auction? Give the kids a certain number of points at registration. They can then bid for the classes they want. Probably a Dutch acution would work nicely for this. Else they might, HORRORS, have to take a less popular class.

        Shouldn’t be that hard to setup, there are multiple vendors out there with auction products. You could even let the kids “roll over” points toward something in a future term. And the behaviorist shenanigans are guaranteed to be amusing to boot!

        • Sean Mays says:

          The blog head synopsis leaves me confused …it talks about charging demand for high-demand classes (English 101 is jammed, but you could take Rhetoric and meet the same requirement) and demand exceeding supply (just not enough seats to go around at all). An auction would be helpful in the first case – getting people into the right class better, but if the supply of courses is scant – then not so much. Reading the source articles makes me think it’s more likely the 2nd case.

        • the commentariette says:

          This comment is just stupid – Sure, English majors can just take a class on Shakespeare if the class on Jane Austen is full. But not nursing students, or chemical engineers, or computer programmers.

          For practical programs (i.e. the ones that might actually lead to job) the majority of courses are required and have to be taken in a specific order.

          You have to take Advanced Algebra before Calculus I before Calculus II, etc. And Chemistry I and Calculus I before Chemistry II before Organic Chemistry I, etc.

          If students don’t get into specific courses, they make no progress toward their certificate or degree that term. Of course, students begin to drop out when it starts taking two or more years of trying just to take one term’s worth of classes. Or to keep their student status, they start taking any class they can get into – spending time and money, but making no useful progress toward a degree – then they drop out.

          A college where students can’t reliably take required courses is worse than useless.

          • Sean Mays says:

            We’d need far more information about the problem to specify if the solution proposed is “just stupid”.

            Having completed majors in physics and history, I’ve experienced both sides – the “lock step” of pre-requisites and limited (NO) substitution and the, take some smattering of courses, distributed in some vague way approaches. Auctions would work fine for unstructured majors, poorly for structured ones.

            I agree that if you’re admitted, the college should be meeting ITs side of the bargain and not blocking you from progressing toward a degree. But we need more information. Because in my experience, it’s not the math majors and the chem majors that are getting into crowding jams, especially past intro classes. I’ve seen plenty of humanities and social science majors get into jams. Especially, for example, if they’re trying to schedule their classes on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and nothing before 10am or after 4pm.

  2. The solution is simple (if you ignore the reality that the US K-PhD school system is really an employment program for dues-paying members of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel): credit by exam.
    Consider this.

    • OK so, simple but not easy.

      I suppose the question is, assuming that part of the reason for this thread is that the American higher education system is pricing itself out of the reach of the people it’s meant to serve part of which phenomena shows up as high-demand classes that aren’t made more available, how to get there from here?

      Credit by exam would certainly go a long way towards breaking up the sort of sniffing dismissiveness that results in an indifference to demand but what’s the means by which to accomplish the feat?

      • Three possibilities:
        1. One State government, backed into a financial corner, mandates credit by exam for some subset of degree programs, and mandates that State agencies accept degrees earned through this process. Other States copy.
        2. The US government mandates that the five service academies (Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine) offer degrees earned through credit by exam, open enrollment to anyone, license Sylvan Learning Centers and the Universiry of Phoenix to proctor the exams, and mandate that Federal agencies accept for employment and promotion degrees earned through this process.
        3. Some billionaire subsidizes a suit by a Costa Rica or Grenada, on behalf of an overseas correspondence school before the World Court, against US accreditation agencies and government policies that restrict accreditation and employment to brick-and-mortar schools, under GATT provisions on trade in services.

        I can dream, can’t I? I suspect that reform will only happen when governments run out of money. They will apply the brakes only after they’re in the ditch.

        • Mark Roulo says:

          My expectation is that this will happen when some well regarded state school (e.g. University of Illinois) runs into enough financial trouble that the folks running it try *really* hard to make this work. My guess is that the initial wedge isn’t credit/degree by test, but credit/degree for a substantially cheaper price when the classes are distance learning (mostly internet, iTunesU, and stuff like that).

          The key aspects are:
          (1) The school has to have a pretty good reputation, and
          (2) The school has to *NOT* distinguish between units and degrees taken on-campus, virtually/over-the-internet, and by test.

          Things are slowly moving in this direction. I expect that in ten years, *some* well regarded state school will “crack” because of financial reasons.

          This won’t start in the Ivys.

          And the service academies are a poor fit because it will be too easy to find out who went there “for real” and who didn’t.

          UIUC, or UCB or GeorgiaTech or some school in that range.

        • I can see serious problems with all three options with “1” and “2” being impeded to a serious degree by political considerations not the least of which are widely-held assumptions about what education consists of. I don’t see “3” being much of a shot under any circumstances since the World Court isn’t worth anything but publicity.

          We could get a trifle less U.S.-centric and consider that there are populous, rapidly-growing nations that probably aren’t going to want to bother with the rather lengthy amount of time it takes to create first-class institution of higher learning that they probably need already and will go for Malcolm’s possibility “2” leaving the structuring of the education designed to prepare test-takers to everyone and anyone who wants to try to get into the business.

          One of Malcolm’s billionaires from possibility “3” could probably fund the development of quite a nice, little suite of such tests without doing much more then pulling change out from between their couch cushions.

  3. Obi-Wandreas says:

    Price gouging is the term economic illiterates use for the law of supply and demand. What the nitwits don’t comprehend is that raising the price makes it worth more people’s while to provide supply. The price only increases for a short time; after that, the increase in competing suppliers drives the price back down again.

    Of course, how much understanding of basic economics can one expect out of people who think they have a “right” for people to give them things.

  4. Why not some kind of meritocracy, where kids who have high GPAs (and of course, the difficulty of classes would have to play a role in weighting there) get first crack at the “desirable” courses?

    If I taught a popular and in-demand class, I’d rather see the deck stacked with high achievers than with people who can pony up the most donations to the schools’ endowment, or the people who get “lucky” in getting to register first, or whatever.

    • Yes, for a class in a sequence, slots should be allotted based on performance in the prerequisite. Those who earned A’s get to register first, then the A- students, then the B+ ones and so on. If there are not enough slots for all the students who earned the same grade in the prerequisite, then it further gets winnowed by overall GPA.

      • Law of Unintended Consequences says:

        So if that becomes a common solution, that will cause more pressure on grade inflation at the high school level.

        • What do H.S. grades have to do with it? It would be the grade in the prerequisite class taken at the college that would be the determining factor. So if I want to enroll in 2nd semester Calculus, the college would look at my grade in 1st semester Calculus. For classes that are the first in the series, the scores on the placement exam could be used.

  5. George Larson says:

    I am not against an auction especially if the proceeds were used to fund more of the high demand classes.

    Another approach is load the syllabus up with homework and tough high value exams in the first 2 weeks of the class to force out a lot of students to make room for others.

  6. Stacy in NJ says:

    Can they take a CLEP exam and skip the class? CLEP is commonly offered at the 101 level. Why not do it that way?

  7. Mark Roulo says:


    The community college in question did *NOT* “to charge four times more for high-demand classes.”

    If you click through all the way to the SFGate article (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/04/06/MNUH1O01AJ.DTL), you will find that the community college was planning to offer ADDITIONAL courses to meet the needs:

    Under the two-tier plan, a nonprofit foundation would be formed to offer courses for about $600 each, or about $200 per unit. The extra courses at the higher rate would help students who were not able to get into the full, in-demand classes.

    The problem is that the currently offered classes (in whatever mix) are subsidized (by the state or city or whatever) and there isn’t enough money to provide more classes at the subsidized rate. In effect, the CC was offering the students who were wait-listed the option of actually paying the full price of the class so that additional teachers could be hired to teach it.

    The students could always pass on this and go on the wait list.

    *NOW*, the extra classes won’t happen, so the only choice is to wait.

    Clearly a much better state of affairs 🙂

    • Cranberry says:

      “so that additional teachers could be hired to teach it.”

      Except…”The courses, which would be taught by campus faculty, would supplement rather than supplant regular course offerings and increase access for students who otherwise would be turned away, said Santa Monica College President Chui L. Tsang.” http://articles.latimes.com/2012/mar/14/local/la-me-college-classes-20120314

      The courses are math and English courses. If the college doesn’t provide enough sections to meet degree requirements, they should be honest about it. It represents a tuition increase, if a student wants to complete a degree in time.

      If I were a community college student, this would look very much like privatizing education. If you can pay more, you get special treatment.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        Okay, so the current teachers are being paid more to teach more sections.

        We still have the fundamental problem that the subsidy money isn’t enough to pay for all the classes that the kids want to take. So now what? Allowing the kids to pay full price at least provides the possibility that you can find/hire the teacher to teach that additional section.

        Since I don’t think that the state is going to *increase* the amount of money spent on community colleges, what else?

        Does this represent a tuition increase to finish on time? Yes, it does.

        The other plan is that you just can’t graduate on time. Is this really an improvement?

        • Cranberry says:

          Under the plan, approved by the governing board and believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the two-year college would create a nonprofit foundation to offer such in-demand classes as English and math at a cost of about $200 per unit. Currently, fees are $36 per unit, set by the Legislature for California community college students. That fee will rise to $46 this summer.

          The problem is the unrealistic fee structure set by the California Legislature for community colleges. The cost of attendance is unrealistically constrained.
          To create a new nonprofit which offers the same courses on the same campus, taught by the same teachers, would in effect create a second community college within the first.

          It would be much more fair for the board to petition the legislature to allow the college to raise fees to a realistic level. Low fees only create the illusion of access, if the fees aren’t adequate to cover the cost of courses.

          If most of the student body works, then some class times will be more popular than others. Night classes, for example, are probably very popular. The college has a duty to offer their enrolled students a realistic chance of finishing a degree, or of qualifying to transfer to another institution, without tacking on extra fees to offer courses students must take because the cc makes them obligatory.

          It’s analogous to reserving spots in the public college system for out of state students, because the legislature allows them to pay full price, while denying in-state students with good grades spots in the colleges their families’ taxes support. Access is restricted by artificially low prices set by politicians.

          • Mark Roulo says:

            “The problem is the unrealistic fee structure set by the California Legislature for community colleges. The cost of attendance is unrealistically constrained.

            It would be much more fair for the board to petition the legislature to allow the college to raise fees to a realistic level. Low fees only create the illusion of access, if the fees aren’t adequate to cover the cost of courses.”

            I agree.

            Of course, we’d still see community college students protesting/rioting over the fee increases …

  8. In some parts of the country, quickly opening more sections of popular classes (provided the money was there) would work. But given the woes we’ve had on my campus finding qualified people to teach on a “short term contract,” I don’t know how it would work in much of the country.

    two short-termers we had worked out very badly.(One was rude to the students and borderline abusive to some colleagues, another just stopped showing up.)

    There’s also the option – which we’ve gone to – of overloading existing faculty with an adjunct load (for adjunct pay) on top of their normal loads, but I don’t think that’s sustainable for very long without burning people out.

    • I know someone working as an adjunct in California who would love to get extra work in order to be able to stop working side jobs to make ends meet.