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New Computerized Matching Process Replaces Course Auctions at UPenn’s Wharton School

Professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School have developed a new process for MBA course selection, one they think is more fair, less stressful and less time-consuming than traditional course auctions, the Financial Times reports. Called Course Match, the new system involves a single round of bidding by students, after which 10 high-powered servers spend 12 hours running algorithms to allocate courses.

Wharton professors decided four or five years ago that the auction system then in place wasn’t working as they had intended it to. Some students (especially former financial traders) were fairing really well in the auction system, in which class seats were allocated like shares issues. But others were getting inferior schedules. The process was also stressful and time intensive, requiring students to predict the bidding strategies of their peers and go through eight rounds of bidding.  

“We realized there might be something wrong with the mechanism itself,” Gerard Cachon, Wharton professor of operations and information management, told the FT. He spearheaded the Course Match initiative to find a better solution. Two years in development, the new system is based on theoretical research by Chicago Booth professor Eric Budish on multi-unit assignments problems.

Through the Course Match system, which Wharton students used for the first time last year, they are given 100 points to allocate to their preferred courses and then additional points to give to other courses in proportion. They have the ability to link courses together – bidding more to get both – are to instruct the algorithm to bid for two similar courses but then ignore one of them if the other is allocated.

Second-year students have 5,000 total points, and first-year students have just 4,000, which students themselves agreed would help ensure that all MBAs get a shot at securing the courses they want over their two-year program.

“Every student gets the best schedule they can afford,” Cachon told the FT. Student response has been “overwhelmingly positive,” he says, adding that participants have found the allocation to be fair and the process easy.

Cachon believes that Course Match could have applications elsewhere at Wharton and beyond. The next logical step would be to extend the scheduling tool to Wharton’s undergraduate degree program and then to the University of Pennsylvania more generally. From there, other universities and even businesses could make use of it. Hospitals, for example, could use the algorithms behind it to allocate complex shift patterns.

“We’re a business school,” Cachon told the FT. “We’re always looking for revenue-generating opportunities.”

Read the complete FT article, “Technology Brings Choice to MBA Students.”