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Fast '12: Correct market forces, don't ignore them

The recent attempt by students to form a market for seats in courses with capped enrollment ("Econ caps spur black market controversy," Sept. 12) elicited a response from the University administration that was grossly insufficient in its redress of the factors that compel students to offer cash for course registration. The University is right to oppose these black markets, since such trade runs counter to the idea that all Brown students should have equal access to the University's academic resources regardless of how much disposable income they have.

But banning cash-for-registration deals by appealing to the Academic Code without providing better alternatives only serves to drive such transactions out of public view, rather than out of existence. Without better ways to reallocate registrations to satisfy the largest number of students, the threat of retribution will drive those determined to acquire seats in capped courses through payment onto anonymous forums, of which Brown has plenty.

Moreover, the idea that market forces are somehow not at play here is patently false — wherever there exists the potential for trade to benefit all parties involved, there exists the potential for a market to come into existence to generate that benefit. That is to say, people generally attempt to transact with others to get what they want without regard for the legality of these transactions. The collapse of the Soviet economic system and the failure of the prohibition of drugs to significantly reduce usage rates are paramount examples of this phenomenon in action.

Since it is undesirable for the quality of one's experience at Brown to become a function of one's wealth, what can then be done to ensure that this is not the case? To answer this question, allow me to introduce the example of Alice, Bob and Catherine, three Brown students each enrolled in capped courses that they would rather replace with a different one. Alice is presently enrolled in ECON 1485: "Social Security Reform," but has decided that she would rather interact with robots than economists, and would therefore like to take CSCI 1480: "Building Intelligent Robots." Bob is taking Alice's desired computer science course, but as a senior, he often looks back wishing he had taken more humanities courses, and is particularly interested in RELS 0250: "Good and Evil," but it is — alas — full. Catherine, one of its enrolled students, considers a knowledge of the Social Security program vital for being a well-informed American voter, and thus wants to move to Alice's economics course.

 If Alice were to take Bob's seat, Bob were to take Catherine's and Catherine were to take Alice's, they would all be happier academically, but none of them has the knowledge of the others' preferences necessary to initiate the transaction. It is at this stage that the University could be doing much better in terms of fulfilling its students' academic desires. Given the profusion of online services that Brown maintains for its students to manage their academic lives — Banner, Blackboard and Mocha, to name a few — could Brown not add an online clearing house that efficiently matches students with available seats in their desired courses?

While a trade between Alice, Bob and Catherine would not be obvious to a regular observer, a computer armed with information about the course preferences of all students could be easily programmed to generate an allocation of seats that satisfies the largest possible number of students by taking situations like that of Alice, Bob and Catherine into account. Such a service would be secure — black markets with anonymous actors carry a large risk of fraud — and efficient — optimal trades could be generated and implemented in seconds. Most importantly, with a system that is sufficiently easy to use, there would be no need to trade registrations for cash because a computer would perform the switch for free with no need to trust a counterparty to maintain their end of the bargain.

Indeed, an extensive knowledge of microeconomics would be essential to create such a system, which is why I am personally shocked that the Department of Economics has so happily abdicated this role — one afforded to it by the utility of the economic discipline — in favor of a simple ban.

This is not to say that students do not have their own obligations and roles to play in this matter. For instance, the interactivity of large courses can often be enhanced by sitting in the front row, which grants numerous opportunities to ask instructors questions that can stimulate discussion. This is also not to say that an online clearing house run by the University is the only — or even the best — solution to the problem that the administration could implement. Departments that find themselves unable to offer a large enough array of courses to their students may consider hiring more faculty. Individual classes that have become too large for discussions to be feasible could make attendance at sections run by TA's mandatory.

In short, while it is good to be proactive in one's education, the existence of black markets in course registration is a pressing issue that the University is uniquely equipped to confront. Continued failure to do so will only exacerbate the problem.


Hunter Fast '12 is a computer science-economics concentrator who shares Alice's eventual disappointment that robots will never be intelligent enough to independently form goals.


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