Opinion guest column

MIT’s pre-registration fee is a hidden tax on students

Students should receive email reminders of important deadlines rather than unexpected fees

Every IAP and summer, a little-known date passes that determines whether students will be hit with an $85 fee — the late pre-registration fee. Just a few days ago, Jan. 13, 2022, while some students were on internships or off-campus, students who had not pre-registered for classes received an $85 fee charged to their student accounts (students typically find out they were charged a few weeks after the deadline, when their student account bills are posted). Pre-registration is the process by which students preliminarily sign up for classes, communicating a student's intent to take courses. The exact number of people who receive the fine is unclear, but a conservative estimate of 1% of students receiving this fee would lead to over $10,000 in fees annually. While a very small amount compared to MIT’s multi-billion-dollar budget, an unexpected $85 fee is significant to students, especially those struggling financially with student loans or a high cost of living.

But what makes this fee hidden? Why are students not well aware of this deadline or fee?

For one, the registrar sends only one email, over a month before the deadline, informing students about the upcoming pre-registration period and late fee. There are no subsequent reminder emails or check-ins as the deadline approaches. To make matters worse, that email is sent one day before pre-registration actually begins, which means that even if students read the email and want to pre-register, they must wait one day before proceeding with pre-registration. On top of that, the email does not contain any link to the pre-registration website, adding one more barrier to pre-registering.

Second, the registrar does not directly email students about the deadline. Instead, the registrar emails graduate administrators with the expectation that they will forward the email, effectively absolving themselves of the responsibility to remind students of the fee. Meanwhile, the graduate administrators are expected to keep this deadline in mind and remind students of it while they continue running an entire department. Finally, pre-registration is rarely on a student’s radar in the middle of the summer or IAP. Undergraduates are off-campus over the summer doing internships or taking a break, and often, graduate students are not even enrolled in courses or aware of the academic schedule.

The purpose and necessity of the fee in itself is questionable. Presumably, the purpose of the fee is to encourage students to inform MIT of their intent to take courses (recall this is for pre-registration, not registration itself). For example, MIT may need an estimate of course enrollment so that it can reserve rooms and allocate teaching roles. The purpose of the fee would then be to encourage students to fill out the pre-registration with enough time for MIT to prepare for the semester.

This rationale is tenuous for three reasons. 

First, if students are not even aware of the fee or deadline, then the fee itself is ineffective in changing student behaviors. Given that pre-registration requires no commitment from the student, it is unlikely that students are intentionally not pre-registering or procrastinating on a difficult decision (that will happen on add/drop date).

Second, many graduate students are registering only for thesis units, known as “.THG”, which have no bearing on classroom or teaching employment, thus making pre-registration unnecessary, or at least superfluous, for the thousands of graduate students enrolled at MIT. 

Finally, if the goal is to encourage students to pre-register, one would expect MIT, at a minimum, to already employ non-fee-based methods for ensuring students pre-register, such as emailing closer to the deadline or sending targeted emails to those who have yet to pre-register. This inaction leads to missed pre-registrations and student fees, and more importantly, it means that MIT is unable to get the information they presumably want before the registration period begins.

What should MIT do? First, the registrar’s office should directly contact and warn students of an upcoming fee. This should lie within the registrar’s responsibility, since they conveniently have access to both the email addresses and the registration status of all MIT students. A common reason given for not emailing more frequently is that students receive too many emails already. However, I suspect an additional few emails would be appreciated by students if it means avoiding an $85 fee (and if we’re going to reduce mass emails, we should reduce random event publicity or outreach from recruiters, not important information from the Institute).  

More broadly, as an institute focused on innovation and science, MIT should be looking into less punitive and more effective methods to ensure students are pre-registering, such as targeted reminders and improved communications. MIT could also consider looking at their peer schools — who have moved their late fees much closer to the beginning of the semester, when students are thinking about registration — or to libraries across the country which have gotten rid of late fees altogether, due to reports showing the unequal financial burden posed to lower-income patrons.

At the end of the day, MIT has a responsibility to ensure that classes run smoothly every semester. MIT also has a responsibility to its students to ensure that the Institute’s actions (or inactions) are not leading to a hidden tax on the student population. Currently, are they effectively holding up either of these responsibilities?

Noam Buckman
BS ’16, MS ’18, PhD ’22 (expected)