UF study: ‘Course shopping’ costing students and colleges

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- It is a familiar source of frustration for anyone who has studied in a university or community college: you desperately need a specific course, but the class is full by the time you get to register.


August 22, 2007



GAINESVILLE, Fla. — It is a familiar source of frustration for anyone who has studied in a university or community college: you desperately need a specific course, but the class is full by the time you get to register.

You may have been crowded out of that class by a “course shopper” – a student who repeatedly drops and adds classes right up to the last minute. According to a recent University of Florida study, more than one out of every three college-level students qualifies as a course shopper, and they are taking a toll on their colleges and fellow students.

“Administrators have historically considered course shopping a benign behavior,” said Linda Serra Hagedorn, a professor at UF’s College of Education and lead author on the study, which appeared in the July/August issue of The Journal of Higher Education. “We’re finding, however, that leaves empty seats in classrooms and students who can’t enroll in the courses they want.” 



Linda Serra Hagedorn

Course shoppers are students who try to maximize their academic success by sampling courses prior to settling on a final schedule.  Some students “shop” in a cyclic manner by registering for a normal course load – but dropping any classes that look too tough after the first class session, or swapping those classes for courses that seem less challenging. The swapping process may continue until the end of the drop-add period.

Others, known as bulk shoppers, schedule a far larger course load than they intend to take. They then attend all the classes they’ve registered for, and drop the ones they like the least.

A veteran college administrator, Hagedorn has seen ample anecdotal evidence of the prevalence of course swapping. As the lead investigator of a project called TRUCCS (or Transfer and Retention of Urban Community College Students) Hagedorn and her colleagues found themselves uniquely well-positioned to examine course shopping’s true effects.

TRUCCS is a multiyear, comprehensive study of the college transcripts and educational outcomes of more than 5,000 students within the community college system in Los Angeles. While many studies have examined student transcripts or polled students on their backgrounds, plans, and academic habits, TRUCCS is one of the largest studies to look at transcripts and student questionnaires in tandem.

When investigators looked at course shopping among their sample, they found that 38 percent of students in the study engaged in at least some form of course shopping. Most of those were cyclic shoppers. About 7 percent of the entire study body qualified as bulk shoppers. And some students were “mixed-bag shoppers” who did a little of both.

It’s clear that bulk shopping does the most damage, Hagedorn said, but all kinds of course shoppers do damage to the higher education system by blocking out fellow students, causing needless work for administrators, and throwing a monkey wrench into class schedules.

“The cost is difficult to quantify, but when you have empty seats in a class and students who wish they could have taken that class, it’s clear that there is some waste involved,” Hagedorn said.

Course-shopping appears to hold broad appeal. The study found few variations in shopping behaviors between men and women or people of different ethnic backgrounds. Business majors were more likely than others to add and drop courses in bulk, and English and math courses were the ones most likely to be “shopped.”

The appeal is strongest among struggling students, who see course shopping as a way to make up for academic shortcomings, Hagedorn said. Still, the study suggests that stratagem may not work. The authors found that while occasional course shoppers showed a roughly average rate of course completion, frequent shoppers were more likely to have low grades and to drop out of school entirely.

Hagedorn and her co-authors offer a number of suggestions for reining in course shoppers. Schools could take a relatively hard line, instituting a “three strikes” policy that bans any student from dropping large numbers of classes for more than a few semesters. They could also employ less direct techniques such as requiring teachers to post a syllabus for each class online, which would help occasional shoppers avoid registering for courses they aren’t prepared to take.

“Dropping a course is very easy for a student,” Hagedorn said.  “It might benefit the students if colleges made the process more difficult.”

Written by: Alex Stern, COE Student Writer
               Tim Lockette, COE Staff Writer