Meta-Commentary

Unintended

Posted in work by Adrian Arroyo on September 6, 2012

(Disclaimer: this post is so “first world problems” that the disclaimer itself seems faintly ridiculous. I’m posting it now because bidding hasn’t closed yet, and I don’t want it to come off as whining about not getting the courses I want.)

The Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) uses a bidding system to allocate scarce seats in high-demand courses. Depending on program and year, each student receives an allocation of points. They assign these points as they see fit, and after a given period of time the market “clears” at a price determined by number of seats and the maximum bids entered by students. Assuming the baseline allocations are determined thoughtfully, the system puts scarce resources in the hands of those willing to pay more for them.

However, within the larger ecosystem of HKS the bidding system has some interesting and unintended consequences.

Inside the MPP program graduation requirements differ from concentration to concentration. International and Global Affairs (IGA)–the catchall for security/foreign policy/global governance–requires students to complete 6 of their 9.5 elective credits within the concentration, double that of most other concentrations.

In addition, courses taught by IGA faculty are much in demand beyond the MPP program. MPAs and mid-career students from security and foreign policy backgrounds are drawn to the classes run by big wheels like Graham Allison, former Amb. Nicholas Burns, Joe Nye and former Dep. National Security Adviser Meghan O’Sullivan. This cross-program appeal, in combination with the deeper initial pool of points afforded MPAs and mid-careers, tends to fill those classes and drive up the clearing price.

The net effect of these pressures is a further increase in the opportunity costs incurred by IGA concentrators. As they are priced out of the market for their preferred courses, the lofty requirements of the concentration limit their fallback options. In short, in order to graduate they must take courses within the concentration even if those courses have little relation to their career goals and are of less interest to them than other courses outside the IGA concentration.

As a result, savvy students with an interest in IGA (otherwise known as “scabs” or “Pickering Fellows*”) to select a different concentration to ensure that if they can’t get into their preferred IGA courses they’ll have a wider menu of options to choose from. Given that the IGA fact sheet asserts (p.5) that students will receive “comprehensive and rigorous training” with an eye toward creating a pool of distinguished alumni, the fact that the interaction between the degree requirements and the bidding system ends up chasing students out of the concentration seems perverse. If you apply the sort of systems-level analysis and awareness of collective action problems that the IGA concentration inculcates to the concentration itself, you could be forgiven for arriving at the conclusion that it might be wiser to pitch your tent elsewhere.

There are a couple of ways to address the problem. On the supply side, you could ask the faculty to offer more classes. However, the realities of life in academia dictate otherwise. For tenure-track faculty, the incentives are all wrong. For practitioners, the need to manage a career outside the university puts limits on the amount they can teach. On the demand side, things are a little more promising. The school could implement a two-tiered bidding system for IGA courses, where a certain number of seats are set aside for IGA concentrators. Those seats go to bidding and clear before the general bidding starts, ensuring that IGA students are competing among themselves and not with the HKS community at large.

In all honesty, this isn’t a big problem. It affects a tiny minority of students at Harvard, which is itself a tiny minority of students generally. The world will soldier on whether or not a solution ever arrives. However, if the IGA concentration wants to make good on its goal of training future nuclear negotiators, grand strategists and ambassadors, it might behoove them to ensure those folks don’t get bumped from the relevant courses while they’re in graduate school.

*I say this with love, guys.

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