Whitman should change its course registration system

Zach Duffy

November 5 marked the beginning of Whitman’s spring semester registration period, and with it the mad rush of students trying to get into their most desired classes. I watched on helplessly this past Friday as seniors registered and my course options dwindled. I wanted to take Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s Genealogies of Political Economy, but that course closed within a day of its offering; all but five seats in Deb Simon’s Chemistry of Art were filled; just a few spots were left open in Don Snow’s course on the nature essay. The frustration of putting together a workable schedule left me wondering: Do other colleges use registration systems that better enable students to get into their top-choice classes? It turns out that several institutions do, and I think Whitman should consider adopting one of the registration systems next year.

At Grinnell College, incoming students register for courses using a preference voting system. Students examine the course catalog and determine which classes they are interested in taking; then they rank all of those classes in order of preference. Grinnell also asks its students to list acceptable alternative courses for each time slot. When registration rolls around, Grinnell’s registrar places every student in his or her top choice course according to a randomly selected order. This order is then reversed in second, third, and fourth rounds of course selection. The result, according to the Grinnell registrar’s website, is that “nearly 90% of students receive their first-choice course in the first round and around 85% receive their first-choice course in the second round.”

At Colby College, certain courses have no enrollment limits during the registration period. Instead, after all students have indicated the classes they wish to take, Colby’s registrar reviews the academic record of each of the students registered for over-enrolled classes and weeds out students who do not need the course to fulfill graduation or major requirements. The system seems harsh, but it also ensures that Colby’s students are never locked out of taking desired classes in their majors, and that few students need to scramble to take required classes in senior year.

Registration at Carleton College is similar to Whitman, but the registrar gives freshmen and sophomores priority to register for introductory classes in over-enrolled departments so that students are able to sample classes in the most popular departments before choosing their majors.

All of these registration systems are geared towards one goal: maximizing the chance that students are able to enroll in their most desired classes, given that course selection is inevitably limited. Tim Kaufman-Osborn, Whitman’s provost, spoke to this issue at last month’s ASWC Town Hall on enrollment pressure. Whitman, he said, will never be able to enroll every student in every class he or she wants to take; that is an expensive and impossible goal for a college to take on. But I think it might be a reasonable goal for Whitman to enroll every student here in his or her top-choice class. Adopting a new or modified registration system could be just the step we need to take in order to make that possible.