Students use Pollinate to sell class time slots

The common problem of oversubscribed courses at American universities has met with a possible match in a few University of Chicago students trying to arrange slot sales to willing bidders.

The students, both senior economists in Chicago, say they are already holding student-pair sales at nearby Illinois University in Chicago and Cornell University, hoping to expand it further.

The system, called Pollinate, involves a computer program that continuously checks each targeted university’s database for class openings, in response to a chronic demand that too many institutions have failed to meet enough, the agency said. one of the creative students, Jonathan Merril.

“If we can somehow figure out how to fix it for one or two early on, and we can provide a great level of service,” Mr. Merril said, “then we can kind of see doing it for many more universities.”

Some administrators and students at the institutions initially affected — including the University of Chicago itself — acknowledged the underlying concern, but predicted that finding and selling course slots through Pollinate would ultimately prove technically and legally impractical. .

Yet, in many cases, American universities do not offer better solutions. One of the most chronically overcrowded systems is the University of California system, where reported individual course slot sales in recent years have reached $300 (£260).

The attempt by Mr. Merril and his partner, Jack Ogle, to formalize the process appears “to start with good intentions,” said Robert Dixon, registrar at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“But that’s not feasible,” Mr Dixon said, “because they would have to work with live data from our student information system, and we don’t have real-time data that is publicly available. on the number of places available. . ”

This is largely because the UIC has had its own experience of students with computer skills trying such things to help themselves or a few friends, Mr Dixon said. The constant automated queries harmed other students by slowing down the university’s IT services, so UIC hid its course availability data.

UIC’s Mr Dixon and a spokesperson for the University of Chicago said their institutions also had student code of conduct rules that would hinder such practices, including a ban on enrolling in classes that a student does not plan to take.

And at Cornell, several students have begun protesting Pollinate via social media, calling it another tool to disadvantage low-income students who are already struggling.

Mr. Merril acknowledged this type of possible harm. But he said the limited course availability is already hurting those with the least flexibility in their lives. He said students trading class slots on Pollinate paid an average of only $30, and he cited the case of a student hoping to save money by commuting with his sister who would gladly pay that. amount so that they can align their schedules.

UIC shares these concerns, said Mr Dixon. He realizes, he said, that many students and faculty prefer midday and midweek classes. But he insists on a wider spread throughout each day and week to help more students create their schedules, and he carefully monitors enrollment choices in the spring and summer to optimize class availability for the fall, he said.

Yet many American universities, including UIC, routinely have instances where students have to wait impatiently until their junior or senior years—when they finally get top selection preferences—to take courses that make integral part of their majors.

Mr Merril said he was agnostic about whether Pollinate would eventually gravitate towards a system where students pay to get into a needed class, or whether exchanges work some other way. “It’s okay,” he says, “it doesn’t have to be about money. But there is no solution at the moment for a student who really wants to enter a class – he is not able to choose to spend a little money, or to try to enter it somehow. any way, other than pleading and begging the administration.”

Exceptions to general waiting lists for courses at UIC are very rare, Mr Dixon said, usually involving athletes due to their frequent travel; those with a certified disability; and, by state law, veterans. Students in arrears may also be excluded, he said.

“We try to keep this to the bare minimum possible,” he said of course enrollment preferences, “because it creates divisions within a campus community.”

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