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Auditing courses

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Research in the economics of education suggests that the financial payoff of education occurs through a mix of human capital acquisition and signaling: by taking a given course, people signal both their pre-existing abilities and the fact that they have acquired knowledge in courses. This also means that much of the high cost of college courses is due to the signaling benefits of getting a grade at the end of it that can be used towards degree completion.

What if you do want to take a course, but don't need a grade and don't need it for your degree? You may find the price tag too exorbitant. Fortunately, there's an alternative: sitting in, or auditing, the course.

The auditing discussed here could involve:

  1. People who are not enrolled or affiliated with a college or university sitting in on classes there.
  2. People who are affiliated with a university in one capacity sitting in on classes intended for a different audience. For instance, a mathematics graduate student sitting in on an economics course of no relevance to his/her research.
  3. People auditing courses in their area of interest.

Alternatives to auditing

Auditing is a time-intensive and resource-intensive option compared to others, such as using opencourseware or massive online open courses. But it has many of the advantages of face-to-face courses, including real, live, in-person interaction and the opportunity to connect and network directly with peers and instructors.

The main way that auditing differs from a credit course is that it is hard to get feedback in the form of grades, but auditors may still be allowed access to tests and may be able to self-evaluate. In some cases, professors may be willing to informally assign grades to auditors.

External barriers to auditing

Do instructors care?

Instructors are generally happy, or at worst neutral, rather than sad, to have people sit in on their classes. They will rarely forbid or punish such behavior.

The following might be some reasons that instructors care, and how to deal with them:

  • Instructors may not like it if you audit their classes without telling them clearly. So, it is best to introduce yourself and explain that you are auditing the course. Explaining your reasons (including your liking for the instructor and subject) might help.
  • If the room allocated to the lecture is packed to capacity, then the instructor may not permit auditing, or may be hostile to it. Therefore, when auditing, make sure that there is enough capacity in the room and that you are not inconveniencing people who signed up for the class.
  • If you take up the instructor's time or resources at a personal level (for instance, using office hours a lot or submitting homeworks), the instructor may not like that. On the other hand, some instructors may appreciate your genuine interest in learning (to contrast with students who are in the class because they have to take it). You want to get the upside without generating hostile reactions. It would thus be best to preface any request for help or grading feedback with "I know I'm auditing the course, so I'm not entitled to assistance per se, but I'd like some help on this. Would you be willing?" Also, show the instructor that you are putting in adequate effort. With students who are enrolled, instructors have an obligation (of sorts) to help them. As an auditor, you have no right to make demands, so you need to be particularly careful to impress the instructor of your dedication if you are seeking personalized help.
  • Instructors may not like it if you participate too much in class or steal the thunder from the students who are paying for the course. On the other hand, they may like it. if they're providing in-class opportunities to students, you may get lower priority as an auditor. Don't complain about getting lower priority, and check with the instructor if your class participation is okay.

With these caveats, instructurs are generally happy with accommodating auditors.

For anecdotal evidence on this front, see these blog posts:

  • To Learn or Credential? by Robin Hanson, where he writes: "As a researcher at NASA Ames Lab in the late 1980s, I found it easy to sit in on classes at nearby Stanford. I sat in on many classes in many departments, participating often in class discussions. I never applied for admission, or paid tuition, but no one ever complained. One professor even wrote me a letter of recommendation based on my work for his class."
  • Get the Best Education in the World, Absolutely Free! by Bryan Caplan quotes and agrees with Hanson.
  • Can I Sit In? by Bryan Caplan, a follow-up.

Do college administrators care?

In some cases, instructors don't have issues, but the college or university administration might. However:

  • College and university administrators often encourage prospective students to sit in on classes as a way of gauging the university experience. Therefore, any objections they have to auditing are not categorical.
  • In general, they have better things to do than scoop out auditing.
  • The most relevant concerns of college and university administrators would include room overcrowding and untrustworthy non-students hanging around university buildings. As long as you can convince any administrators or college police that you're trustworthy and legitimate, you should be fine.

Moral barriers to sitting in

Getting something without paying for it?

Some people might have moral qualms about sitting in on a course without paying for it. But keep in mind:

  • Assuming that the course you are sitting in on does not have an overfull room, and assuming you do not try to encroach on the instructor's attention, you are not using resources at the margin.
  • In some cases, your participation in class discussions can add value to the instructor and other students.
  • In any case, a lot of higher education involves a complicated system of cross-subsidies between different parts.

The Kantian imperative

Auditing courses may work at the margin, but obviously if too many people decided to do this, the situation would be unsustainable.

However, there is little reason to believe that we are anywhere near the margin where auditing courses is unsustainable:

  • Many college courses simply aren't worth sitting in on.
  • The college courses that are most likely to be of use to people genuinely interested in the subject don't always coincide with the most popular ones, often due to their difficulty. So they should have ample capacity for people to sit in.
  • There are also geographic restrictions on who can sit in on courses. So it's highly unlikely that large numbers of non-students will turn up physically at a popular course.