The Hidden Costs of Course Shopping

Welcome back. We hope that you enjoyed the break. Now, please proceed to plan the rest of your life within the next two weeks.

Such was the suffocating urgency I felt upon returning to campus when, despite a month to prepare, I was still alarmingly unsure of the classes I wanted to take this spring. As a second-semester sophomore, I was and I remain all too aware that my time to choose a major is running thin. In an effort to craft the schedule that would best prepare me for this impending decision, I embarked on a treacherous and intimidating endeavor: course shopping.

Over the first seven days of the semester, I attended the first classes of no fewer than nine courses and reviewed the syllabus of a 10th one. By the second Wednesday, when I at last stopped browsing, I was fatigued and ready for summer. A large portion of my exhaustion obviously came from the logistics of juggling so many courses—a feat I will not try to duplicate in the future. Even so, I confirmed my suspicion that shopping for courses is a needlessly cumbersome exercise.

In theory, the two-week add/drop period at the start of every semester allows students to sample courses that interest them without committing to a spot in the class. In practice, however, students rarely have the luxury of capitalizing on the shopping period’s full potential. I would even go so far as to say that we stigmatize course shopping. A general distrust of uncertainty pervades the enrollment process and forces students to remain in courses they know little about, simply so they can avoid the modicum of extra stress that accompanies shopping.

From what I hear, many professors do not take kindly to course shopaholics. I can understand why. Students hopping on and off the roster can cause confusion and potentially deter others who would seek a place in the class. At the risk of sounding insolent, however, I will say that I am comfortable asking for two weeks of bureaucratic ambiguity if it means that I can avoid a semester, if not longer, of regret. If professors do, in fact, want to settle their rosters as early as possible, then they should be open and accessible during the add/drop period so that browsing students can quickly and without hassle drop a course that does not meet their needs. 

I recognize the limitations on what light professors can shed so early in a course, but even the simplest of measures can help resolve a shopper’s doubts. I am appreciative, for example, of those professors who scan initial readings onto Sakai—or, optimally, a website that does not require enrollment—for students who wish to finalize their schedules before purchasing books. Huntley Bookstore does not even provide refunds for textbooks after the first week of the semester—a policy that either entraps students or sends them running to Amazon. Professors can further reduce the pain of course shopping by delaying assignments that can mark points of no return—in a couple of my potential courses, the rapid arrival of deadlines that I needed to meet in order to take the classes eliminated them from consideration.

We are evidently willing to sacrifice the security of a well-considered college experience for the security of momentary certainty. In looking at how schools can embrace rather than discourage flexibility at the start of the semester, I might suggest we grant pre-enrolling students the option to exceed their maximum course load—they can then narrow down their choices over the two-week shopping period. I want to emphasize, however, that the system currently in place is operable despite its flaws. The largest problem is one of attitude: Why, in spite of our reverence for intellectual liberty and experimentation, do we fixate on administrative efficiency and ephemeral peace of mind?

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