Sneaking into university lectures for free?
October 13, 2005 12:37 PM   Subscribe

Ignoring the ethics, can you attend/sneak into university classes and lectures for free?

Steve Jobs has said several times that he dropped out of college, but continued to sneak onto campus and "drop in" to any classes he felt interested him (this is how he became interested in typefaces and aesthetics). This tale made me wonder about the few times I've wandered onto campuses with old friends, etc.. the security is rarely good. Libraries often have card systems, but you can walk around the campus easily (this may have changed after 9/11?).

Forgetting the ethics of the situation, has anyone here managed to wander into classes and get free tuition? How well do professors check the attendance of their lectures? Do you think it'd be possible to pull off? Obviously you wouldn't get any credits and you'd probably minimize contact with the academic staff, but how far could one possibly go with it?
posted by wackybrit to Education (52 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
One could probably attend the entire length of an undergraduate course, provided that the class sizes were large enough. Problem would be that you couldn't take tests and have them marked.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 12:42 PM on October 13, 2005

When professors check attendance, it's almost always to make sure that registered people attend, not to keep unregistered people away.

In most schools, you could get into almost any big (>75 people) lecture class without anyone noticing. Getting into a lab section, discussion section, or seminar would be an entirely different kettle of fish, because there the prof or TA will expect to know you by name and will notice if your name is not on the list. So you probably wouldn't be able to take a BA's worth of classes on the sly.

Getting into ticketed lectures would be as hard as sneaking into a movie. But lots of lectures at universities are open to anyone who wants to wander in, including people with no affiliation whatsoever to the university.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:43 PM on October 13, 2005

Impossible unless you're talking about a large state class with 1,200 people. Even then they go around checking IDs from time to time (I'm told). Every class I've had the teacher has known everyone by name, or at least recognized people enough to know if someone wasn't showing up to class and a new face that didn't take tests or turn in homework.
posted by geoff. at 12:44 PM on October 13, 2005

I imagine it would depend on the particular university/college, and even then on the type of class.

I went to Stevens Tech, with around 1200-1500 undergrads and more grad students, and while you could easily get into any of the academic buildings and put your butt in a seat, you couldn't get away with it for every class. Particularly during freshman year, when a lot of people from different majors are all taking the same classes, you'd have absolutely no problem sitting in on a large lecture; you could probably get away with it in some of the recitations, too.

Other classes, though, particularly smaller humanities classes and more specialized classes later on, would be much harder. I had a few classes where there were between nine and 15 people in the class; even though the professors would generally not take attendance, some would make a point of going through the enrollment list and trying to associate names on the list with people in the class. After a week or two, they usually had a pretty good idea of that, and it would be a lot harder to go unnoticed in a class like that.

Some professors take attendance no matter what the class size; some do it by way of passing a sheet of paper around, some do it by calling off names. With the attendance sheet, you can just as easily leave your name off of it; with names called out, though, the prof. might notice you weren't on the list. After a few weeks in any setting, though, most professors have a decent idea of what people to expect in which section, and would probably be surprised to see someone new there all of a sudden.

Maybe with larger universities and colleges you could get away with it more, because there would be larger classes with more attendance variation; I can only speak to my experience.
posted by Godbert at 12:46 PM on October 13, 2005

At my university you could probably attend any math of computer science class, regardless of size, you wanted to. The professors usually had no idea who was supposed to be in the class, and who wasn't. Getting in to seminars, etc, is more tricky, and smaller discussion style classes is more tricky. Of course, forcing yourself to do school work you don't have to is the hard part, and probably where you actually absorb most of the material.
posted by chunking express at 12:46 PM on October 13, 2005

Wow, geoff, where did/do you go to school?
posted by keatsandyeats at 12:48 PM on October 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

my wife (gf the the time) took a history of animation class with me. the class was kinda big (about 50 people or so) and the only classes she missed were the 1st day, midterm, and finals. the prof never had a problem with her being there. I in turn, sat with her in 3 of her advanced bio classes. i got bored though, cartoons were much cooler i guess.
posted by ShawnString at 12:48 PM on October 13, 2005

Thanks for asking the question, I was thinking about this the other day. As others stated, I'd say your chance of getting caught is inversely proportional to the class size. It might be a good idea to look up information about the course on the web prior, for reasons such as mandatory attendance, presence of assigned seats, quiz / test times and the like.
posted by AllesKlar at 12:50 PM on October 13, 2005

For smaller classes, I wonder if you could enroll in the class and drop in time to receive to a full refund. You'd have gotten past the first week of class where the prof compares the people in attendance to the actual roster. I'm not sure if the professor would need to consult the official roster again until it was time to submit grades.
posted by mullacc at 12:55 PM on October 13, 2005

In these days of amazing technology you could always get into MIT for free...
posted by onalark at 12:55 PM on October 13, 2005

Why not just ask the prof if you can sit in? I've done it, and never had any problems as long as I made it clear that I wouldn't be 1.) creating any more work for the prof or 2.) detracting from the education of the registered students. I've never had a prof give a damn about ripping off the university by not paying to attend the course.
posted by tippiedog at 12:58 PM on October 13, 2005

I imagine you could almost get a BAs's worth of Natural Science lectures. Lectures only, as sneaking into the labs would be impossible. But at a large state school, even the senior level classes rarely go below 50 students. Any Liberal Arts classes after the intro level would be almost impossible to sneak into.
posted by lychee at 1:01 PM on October 13, 2005

In my experience? Lectures, yes. Classes, no.

Re: Auditing: I've attended some overcrowded universities and some overpopulated classes. In many cases, the professor wouldn't permit auditing because of overbearing administration or because it's unfair to other students -- those who have paid for the experience you're getting free, or those who were denied entrance to the class.
posted by cribcage at 1:02 PM on October 13, 2005

I've done it a lot at the University of Toronto and I have never run into any professors that care. Just pick the larger classes, keep quiet and listen, and if you're asked to leave, do it politely and apologize once the class is over.

Most colleges and universities are public institutions and you're not trespassing while on campus. How you spend that time is up to you, just don't disrupt the paying students.
posted by purephase at 1:02 PM on October 13, 2005

Most colleges and universities are public institutions

By my understanding this is less typical outside of Canada.
posted by mendel at 1:05 PM on October 13, 2005

Where I went to school (the University of Virginia), this would be the easiest thing in the world to accomplish. You could probably get away with auditing a full schedule of classes, provided they were all reasonably-sized lectures.
posted by killdevil at 1:06 PM on October 13, 2005

Best answer: You folks are trying too hard to hide. In the small discussion/seminar classes, just be up front with the instructor instead of trying to hide - they're not stupid. Tell them you're interested in the topic, will keep up with the background material, and contribute constructively to the class. Depending on your ethics, again, you might or might not tell them that you're listening in as an unaffiliated person.

My best experience doing this was sitting in on a 12-person Spanish-language advanced linguistics course at the University of Minnesota (small, specialized, no way to be missed in that class). The instructor was glad to have someone in the room who was more than a lump, whether or not they were registered. He was even okay with me turning in assignments and taking exams so I could get feedback the same way other students did.

Drawbacks to this method of education, in general: you'll never be able to do the full gamut of classes because some really do have limits on lab space, funding, oversubscription, etc. If the class depends on group work, you will either get much less out of the class by not being able to participate or you will have to commit to that time so the group does not suffer. You may also jeapordize opportunities to take that class in the future, for credit.
posted by whatzit at 1:06 PM on October 13, 2005 [2 favorites]

mendel writes "By my understanding this is less typical outside of Canada."

I assumed that the poster (wackybrit) was British and/or living in Britian. From my understanding, most British (or English) institutions are state funded but not necessarily state owned. I'm not sure if this means that they're public or not.
posted by purephase at 1:24 PM on October 13, 2005

I informally audited a Shakespeare class and an Astronomy class at Rutgers just by asking the professors if I could. Neither were huge lecture classes; in both, I participated like a regular student (though I blew off the tests in the Shakespeare class.) Seems the profs liked the idea of a genuinely interested student more than disliking the idea of giving away education for free. I wouldn't expect this to work for some super-popular overbooked class, though.

In every college I've seen, it'd be trivially easy to attend the lectures of a big lecture class for free. Unless you're literally depriving a registered student a seat, I don't consider it unethical -- you're not taking anything away from anyone, andyou're not making any more work for anyone. What the college is really charging for is to certify your education in terms of credits, grades, degrees.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 1:25 PM on October 13, 2005

The bottom line is that schools are selling credits which result in degrees. If you're there, and not asking questions that would take time away from the paying students - and the key - without asking for the piece of paper that says you were there - they usually couldn't care less.

posted by Independent Scholarship at 1:28 PM on October 13, 2005

Don't bother sneaking; if it's the sort of class that's worth sitting in on, you'd be noticed. Just ask; the answer's almost certainly going to be that you're welcome to sit in.
posted by Wolfdog at 1:39 PM on October 13, 2005

In my experience this is harder for introductory classes. There tends to be attendance taken, regular / unexpected quizzes, large labs / discussion groups. Also, some intro classes are in high demand, and profs may not want you taking up valuable space.

In an upper year class, you'll be noticed, but you could probably just talk to the prof. She'll probably be glad to have somebody in the class who's there because he's interested, not because he has to be.

I did this recently in a third year economics class with 30 students. The prof even marked my term paper and midterm. At final exam time, he helped me bluff my way past the other invigilators with a phony student id number.

On the other hand, I tried to ghost a Film 100 class with 300 students, and dropped out after a week because of all the scrutiny.
posted by blue grama at 1:46 PM on October 13, 2005

It's probably different for each school, but I'm at a large state uni, and I've never had a class where if you weren't ienrolled, you could be identified. Professors that teach my class don't even recognize me in the halls even after I've been in 3 of their classes. What are they going to do? Ask everyone for their IDs? I've only been in 1 class where there were < 50 students in it (Rhet 105) and it was taught by a TA so you probably wouldn't be interested. The only weird thing might be if fellow students inquire about what you're studying.
posted by lpctstr; at 1:48 PM on October 13, 2005

Oh, and you could audit the class instead, but that requires registering at the university. You can often register as a mature student or something, but it's still a hassle.

On preview: when other students asked me what I studied, I just told them I worked full time and was only interested in the class (ie the truth). It usually wasn't weird or anything.
posted by blue grama at 1:52 PM on October 13, 2005

If television is anything to go by, the answer is yes.

(Check out the theme song- lyrics by Johnny Mercer, if you please.)
posted by IndigoJones at 1:59 PM on October 13, 2005

How's this for a plan of attack, based on what people have shared so far?

1. Go to the first class. If there's no indication that sitting in will be noticed (based on class size, stated attendence policy, etc), nothing more needs to be done. You're in. Otherwise...

2. Talk the prof. Let them know your motivation -- genuine interest in the subject -- and see if they bite.

I do agree with the folks who have suggested that in most cases a class of type (1) won't be worth much, but if you are looking for an introduction to a subject it may well be worth it. At WPI, large introductory lecture courses (and a number of lecture-style higher-level courses -- darkened auditoriums are your friend, here) would have been very easy to attend, as would anything that was a common prerequisite with anything but a tiny class size -- the professors were to some extent phoning it in. Whether or not you'd WANT to attend that sort of thing is another question, I suppose. I regret, after the fact, having paid so much money for classes of that sort.

Also, it seems like there's the small but significant chance that you could run across a prof who is not only not going to allow you to audit, but who will watch for you and raise a fuss if he sees you on campus. But then I'm paranoid.
posted by cortex at 2:00 PM on October 13, 2005

You could easily do it for science lectures in Cambridge; the lecturers do not take attendance and have no idea who's supposed to be there. Getting into labs and supervised classes would be slightly harder, but not much - they don't really take attendance there either, but since you'd be interacting with more people, it's more likely that you'd be discovered. Sitting in on a lecture is one thing, but taking part in a lab practical (which has limited resources) is another...
posted by adrianhon at 2:02 PM on October 13, 2005

I took a Logic course at university. It was a class that fulfilled one of the math requirements, so the demand was always high. My particular section had space for about 30 students and was completely filled. I remember there was a large, boorish man in the back who always pestered the professor about symbolic minutiae. However, by about week four he was gone. The professor said he had not registered or paid for the class. There were legitimate students at the beginning of the semester that she had to turn away because all the seats were filled. I believe the fellow was academically dismissed. So I am not sure you can always ignore the ethics of it (especially if make choices as foolishly as that fellow).

Also, in the future, with the increasing demand for distance learning courses and the greater prevalence of technologically blended courses, I wonder if it will be as easy to sneak into lectures without also somehow hacking the network.
posted by squink at 2:03 PM on October 13, 2005

I'll add my voice to the collective chorus of saying "talk to the prof/TA". I've done this before several times, and was turned down only once (and only because there literally weren't enough chairs for the registered students).

Not sure about the auditing route. Yes, it's "official" but I'm not sure school administration is going to process all the paperwork for free. At the local state university here in Seattle (and at the community colleges), auditing students still have to pay the same per-credit charges as the enrolled students. Again, talk to the profs first.

However, as a courtesy to the students, please wait until the end of the second week if you decide to buy the textbook(s) for the course. This gives the registered students time to get the books (esp. the ones who have added the course later.) Of course, this only applies if you are buying from the college bookstore.
posted by luneray at 2:12 PM on October 13, 2005

adrianhon's experience mirrors mine with the EngLit faculty at Oxford. It's a bit different for arts subjects, because the lectures don't really 'teach a class'. There are security people on hand, but if you look the part and don't act suspiciously, I doubt there'd be any hassle. Towards the end of term, the lecturers are usually be glad that anyone turns up.
posted by holgate at 2:12 PM on October 13, 2005

Oh, absolutely. I did an entire degree program at Brown when I was an off-and-on student at RISD.
I began this when I was fully matriculated at RISD, and used the cross-registration program. Soon enough I was just that RISD guy whose paperwork was always late or lost.

I had keys to rehearsal studios, lab access, the works. When I did graduate RISD, 2 out of 3 of by recommendations for grad school were from Brown faculty.

In my experience the system was more geared to punishing slackers than oddballs thirsty for education, but admittedly I have pretty good weasel skills.

Also a very important factor is the "corporate culture" of the school. Wouldn't work too well at Harvard, works just fine at MIT.

Another big factor is contributing to the class by having comments and questions that are well researched and composed.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:19 PM on October 13, 2005

I think it depends on the instructor. I expressed an interest to an instructor here about auditing a course, and he shrugged and said "Just show up." It wasn't a big class- maybe 25 students.
posted by synecdoche at 2:23 PM on October 13, 2005

IndigoJones: Thanks for that HANK link!!!

I loved that show as a kid, and I think that was my model for "auditing" not one, but two degree programs. The other was at MIT.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:28 PM on October 13, 2005

My experience tells me that you can sneak into pretty much any first or second-year lecture class with absolutely no trouble (I went to a mid-sized Canadian university). I've never seen campus security in a class and have never seen anyone take attendance in first/second year lectures (though tutorials and seminars are a different matter).

Beyond that, you're better off asking the prof. In such a case, you'll find some courses easy to get into, and others not so much—I'll bet anyone could've snuck into my third-year computer science requirements, but definitely not my documentary film production course. Pick large departments over small ones; humanities over sciences; lectures over seminars and labs (and forget about anything dealing with special equipment like fine arts classes); lower-year over upper-year. Overall, get a feel for the supply/demand for any course you're considering.

Some profs may turn you down, but generally it's because there simply aren't the resources to handle anyone else, not because they aren't sympathetic to your cause. A shame, but it's true; we are nowhere near the ideal of education for all, and probably never will be.
posted by chrominance at 2:34 PM on October 13, 2005

Also, once your face is familiar, after a course or two with the same professor volunteer to run the projector, organize the materials in the lab (put better labels on things for instance), etc. Run errands for and otherwise assist grad students. YMMV, worked for me.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:43 PM on October 13, 2005

My wife went to a bunch of classes at U.C. Berkeley. Was up front with teachers, nobody made a big deal about it.
posted by signal at 3:29 PM on October 13, 2005

Tippledog has it on the money.

Why not just ask the prof if you can sit in? I've done it, and never had any problems as long as I made it clear that I wouldn't be 1.) creating any more work for the prof or 2.) detracting from the education of the registered students. I've never had a prof give a damn about ripping off the university by not paying to attend the course.
posted by lalochezia at 3:52 PM on October 13, 2005

Sticky Carpet makes a key point people seem to be missing -- considering how disorganized most large universities tend to be, a perfectly workable strategy would be to pretend to be a real student who honestly doesn't understand why their name isn't on the enrolled students list.

Several times in my undergrad program classmates had almost semester-long struggles with the Registrar/Bursar/Financial Aid departments that resulted in thier names not appearing on class lists for much of the semester. In all the cases I can remember they were squared away by the time grades had to be submitted, but I bet if you were persistent and creative, and had a prof who really didn't care that much, you could swing a whole semester's education out of it.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:38 PM on October 13, 2005

Many universities allow auditors into lecture halls for free: you can easily get permission from the professor to attend lectures, provided the class is not full. They just won't let you write exams or participate in other assignments where students get graded.
posted by easternblot at 5:58 PM on October 13, 2005

you could swing a whole semester's education out of it.

I said degree program. Twice. If I paid up I could probably get those degrees.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:05 PM on October 13, 2005

IAAP (I am a professor) and I have often had people ask to sit in, especially when I teach American Indian topics. It is flattering, really. I just ask folks to come on time and not to leave early. Really, we get into this job because to spread knowledge, not to hoard it!
posted by LarryC at 6:11 PM on October 13, 2005

Just do it. So what if you get caught? What are they gonna do, throw you in prison?
posted by exhilaration at 6:12 PM on October 13, 2005

Impossible unless you're talking about a large state class with 1,200 people. Even then they go around checking IDs from time to time (I'm told).

LOL! IAAP. And having attended three undergrad and three grad schools, and taught at three more, only once have I seen someone turned away -- I attempted to sit in on John McPhee's class.

Basically, if the professor's a celebrity, you may have a problem, otherwise I would be astounded.
posted by Aknaton at 6:49 PM on October 13, 2005

I did my undergrad at McGill. The campus is the middle of downtown Montreal, so there are always a bunch of homeless people floating around campus. One of them started sitting in a political science course of about 200 students. He was tolerated for a few classes, but the professor started his lecture one day by asking the homeless man to leave because the course was for registered students only. That triggered a brouhaha. Students started shouting that he should be allowed to stay, as he wasn't hurting anyone by sitting there. A number of students walked out with him.

If the interloper hadn't so clearly been homeless (he came in with bags of cans), he probably would have flown under the radar. Be unobtrusive, you can easily sit in on courses (I've sat in on classes outside my department before). And as everyone has said, if you ask politely, professors will rarely turn you down. I'd think that it might be more difficult to get into business courses that are more career-driven and less academic.
posted by painquale at 7:12 PM on October 13, 2005

I go to a UC, and you could have attended all but maybe 3 classes with me and not had anyone notice. I think about this all the time, because after I'm finished with school, I plan on doing a lot of "sit-ins."
posted by spiderskull at 8:20 PM on October 13, 2005

I sometimes have prospective students - high school students - sit in on my classes. Even though I usually have 80 - 90 students, I can recognize them because they generally visit in the middle of the semester, after I've gotten familiar with the faces of the registered students. I always call on them and ask them a question, just to see the look on their face:

"Hey you, do you have an opinion about this?"

"Uh, uh, uh, I'm, uh, I'm.... uh, not,... uh ... I'm visiting."

"I know. You can still have an opinion."

Once I called on the kid's mother who was also sitting in on the class. She actually had a good answer.
posted by Wet Spot at 8:23 PM on October 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

>Wouldn't work too well at Harvard

Actually, I always saw a lot of community members sitting in on intro-level lecture courses at Harvard. I have no idea if they cleared it with the professors or not, but there were generally 5 to 10 obvious non-students (had the general Cambridge yuppie-hippie vibe) at E.O. Wilson's and Marjorie Garber's lecture courses.

I always wanted to go back and sit in on courses after graduating, but I never got my schedule to work out. But I wouldn't have thought twice about just walking into a lecture hall to listen.
posted by occhiblu at 8:36 PM on October 13, 2005

At the university I attend, we have a very small English department, so professors routinely drop anyone who doesn't show up for the first ten minutes of the first class. All you'd have to do is claim the non-attendee's spot and sit in for them the rest of the semester. Assuming no one else in class calls your bluff, of course... but who listens to roll call other than for their own name?

Other downside to this-- You'd be taking away a spot for someone looking to add a class. But we were disregarding morals here, right?
posted by mdbell79 at 10:17 PM on October 13, 2005

There are very few teachers at my school that would give a crap about extra people in class. The only time it would be a problem would be the following: you're taking up extra time or space, being disruptive or strange. If you sit in the back and keep your mouth shut, you would be fine. Also if they start asking questions, just kiss ass: "Oh my friend had you last semester and they said it was a great class, just wanted to check it out, fascinating lecture!!!"
posted by slimslowslider at 12:24 AM on October 14, 2005

At my last (Pretty good British) University it was (used to be anyway) an explicit rule that any student from the university could attend any lecture on campus. Many classes were of a size that you wouldn't be noticed but if you were saying you were an undergraduate studying something else was a legitimate answer.
As a current lecturer I would definitely notice strange faces in my classes due to very low class size and would question them as we do charge people to take the course and outside people get credit. Language courses I have followed at university have also been very picky about making sure everyone who was in the class should have been, again I think because there was a specific fee attached to outside attendees. Could be useful to be aware of what courses might do this before you start sitting in. Also, to be aware of what courses will have large experiential aspects which will exclude you from attending and learning key elements.
posted by biffa at 1:50 AM on October 14, 2005

I can tell you that when I went to university (University of Leeds, 1977 - 1980) this would have been extremely easy to do in my department (Physics/Astrophysics). In those days anyone could walk into the very open campus from any number of entrances - no Student Union card check - and simply walk into the ever-open Physics department and stroll into a lecture with the other 40 to 80-odd people in the group. The attendance check consisted of nothing more than a piece of paper containing the names of those actually supposed to be attending. Those people ticked their names and passed it on. If someone wasn't supposed to be there they could simply have passed it on unticked or, if they cared enough, pretended to tick a name. I used to see unfamiliar faces in the lectures from time to time and I wondered if this was going on.

These days I suspect it wouldn't be so easy because when some friends and I went on a nostalgia trip to the Uni a couple of years ago security was much tighter and all the doors to the Physics building we tried were locked or had a security person loitering nearby. Sign of the times, I guess...
posted by Decani at 6:57 AM on October 14, 2005

I'll just add my voice to the chorus to say that there's absolutely no need to be sneaky about it. People audit courses all the time. I sat in on most of another department's core graduate classes (about 6 courses of 3 terms) during my degree with full permission of the profs. Many of them even provided their lecture notes, esessially the course textbook, to auditors for free.

Some profs don't like auditors, most commonly because they feel (rightly) that auditors don't put in as much work and don't get as much benefit as regualr students. On the other hand, auditing is a great way to get informed about something that's nice to know, but not critical.
posted by bonehead at 6:59 AM on October 14, 2005

« Older Web-based flow chart software?   |   TIAA-CREF vs Fidelity investments? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.