University News

Econ caps spur black market controversy

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, September 12, 2011

After failing to preregister for two newly capped advanced economics courses, Bradley Silverman ’13, facing unexpected barriers to entry, decided to circumvent the regulations governing seats in those classes. Standing in Lecturer in Economics Maria Carkovic’s class ECON1540: “International Trade,” he displayed a sign reading “Dropping this class? I’ll pay $ for your spot!” in an attempt to create a black market.

International Trade is one of six upper-level economics courses that have been capped at 110 students, beginning this semester. The economics department, chaired by Professor Roberto Serrano, appealed to the College Curriculum Council last spring to cap these courses at 100 students, Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron wrote in an email to The Herald.

But Thursday night, after two days of shopping period, the department decided to raise the cap to 110, Serrano wrote in an email to The Herald. The new spots were open exclusively to seniors concentrating in economics. “With this measure, we hope to address the need of some our seniors, for whom it was the last opportunity to take the course,” he wrote.

While those larger courses — several of which had enrolled over 200 students in past semesters — have been reduced in size, three smaller capstone seminars have been introduced to give senior concentrators in the Department of Economics the opportunity to take small, discussion-based courses, Serrano said.

The decision to change the curriculum was made after departing seniors were given a survey asking them about their experiences last spring, said Louis Putterman, professor of economics and director of undergraduate studies for the department. “Most students indicated that the size of the large courses was a concern, but not a very big concern,” he said.  The survey indicated that concentrators valued the opportunity to take smaller courses.

Putterman added that it is difficult to determine whether reducing courses from roughly 200 students to 110 would change the classroom dynamic. “For me, with 100 I’ve been able to generate good class participation,” said Ross Levine, professor of economics, whose course ECON 1760: “Financial Institutions,” was affected by the change. “Once it gets to 200, it’s really just lecture.”

Silverman, a former Herald staff writer who is triple-concentrating in economics, political science and public policy, said classes with 100 students are already too large to be interactive. “It wouldn’t make a difference to be a student if it’s 100 or 200 or 300,” he said.

Gabe Paley ’12, who is concentrating in economics, offered a different theory for the rationale behind the caps. Economics has “tended to have a reputation for not being the most intensive department,” he said. Classes are so large that students pick the largest ones knowing that they can “coast through,” he said.

By capping the courses at 100, he said, students have to look through courses in advance and preregister, seriously considering what they want to take.

Paley, Silverman and three other economics concentrators contacted by The Herald all ultimately got seats in their desired classes.

Silverman did not end up paying for a spot in the course, he said. Another student, who was already planning to drop the course, offered him her spot for free.

But the prospect of students creating a market for spots in capped courses caught the attention of University Hall. In an email sent Friday morning, Bergeron warned students that selling seats “is a form of academic dishonesty punishable under the Academic Code.”

“For me, as an economist, I should simply remind you that there are circumstances in which the logic of the market system does not apply, and university life is one such example,” Serrano wrote in the same email.

But this is “a natural response” in any situation with a quota, Levine said.

For now, though, the natural laws of economics will remain suspended inside the College Hill bubble.