This is the admission season and counseling is the most common word that I hear in this season. Conceptually, the process is simple. A bunch of universities come together for joint admission process. Each one of them decides how they will rank the applicants. Each applicant submits a list of programs/institute pairs in the order of preference. The counseling software goes through all this data and matches applicants with a program/institute pair while ensuring that no one who is ranked higher as per that institute's ranking of candidates is given a lower preference than this combination.
Historically, the choice list is sacrosanct. You can't change anything in this once the allotment process starts. So you must fill up your order of preference very very carefully.
If we go back many years, the student had very limited options once the process of admission begins. If you are offered admission, you have only two choices - either pay the fee and you will then be considered in all subsequent rounds, and you finally join the program which was allotted to you in the last round. The other option was to opt out, and in that case you will be out from all future rounds as well. If weren't offered admission till a particular round, then of course your only option was to be considered in the next round.
The first improvement in this process happened when people started realizing that if someone has got admission in an IIT, and has blocked a seat in an NIT, inability to withdraw in the middle is ensuring that that seat goes waste. So a withdrawal anytime till a last date was introduced early on, which essentially meant that you are out of the system and you will not be considered for any future admission round either.
Often, the last round of admission would happen after the classes had already started. A large number of institutes and universities in India believe that their teachers are anyway useless and hence if admissions happen even one month after the semester has started, no one loses anything. However, the students had other issues. If I have joined NIT X, and after a week of classes, you tell me to move to NIT Y within a day or two, it will be a huge problem for me to pack up, find train reservation, or travel in unreserved class to reach the other corner of the country, settle their without the benefit of an orientation program, quickly make new friends, copy notes of the classes that I have missed and so on, only to be told to get out and join NIT Z after a few days. So there was a demand that once I have joined a particular institute, I do not wish to change my location even if I am getting my higher preference in a subsequent admission round. And this introduced the concept of "sliding." That I am only willing to be considered for my higher preference in the same campus but nothing else. Of course, this option was made available not only for later rounds, but even earlier rounds, so that one can plan one's travel and get reservations done. Notice that the order of preferences remained sacrosanct. Sliding only allowed that some of my options could be removed from the list, but those that remain were strictly in the same order that I filled up in the beginning.
People extended this further and said that once I have got admission in a particular program, I don't want to go through a phase of anxiety regarding what I might get in the subsequent rounds, and I just want to freeze my admission. This resulted in creation of "freeze" option for the students. This option is often used not to avoid anxiety, but when someone wants to rethink the order of preference, and feels that the current admission offer is better than what one might get in the subsequent rounds. Which ever way you look at it, essentially what has happened is that we have allowed the student to delete a large number of options, without giving an option to change the order of preference of the remaining list.
The biggest problem in today's counseling process is the following. When I was filling up the choice list, I did not have any admission offers. I was interested in 50 different programs, and I listed all of them in the order of my preference. However, a week later, I received an admission offer from another college which I would rank higher than the last 10 options out of 50 that I have filled. If out of these 50, I receive an admission offer in my choice number 41st, I really don't want to accept it, since I have a "better" offer outside this system, but if I don't accept it, I would not be considered for my higher preferences in later rounds. So I accept it knowing fully well that if I don't get higher preferences I won't join this program. This causes inefficiency in the system and hurts everyone - this student, other students, and the institute. We must solve this problem. And the interesting thing is that it is absolutely trivial to solve this problem. Most counseling softwares would probably need a few lines of code to change to allow this. So when a student is offered a particular choice, the student should be able to say that I don't want to accept this, but I still want to be considered for my higher preferences. To ensure seriousness of this choice, one may take a bit of money also from the student. And programming wise, this essentially means that the current offer and any lower options are deleted for this student. Notice that this is exactly what the software was doing in "sliding" - delete certain options without changing the order of preference for the remaining options.
Actually, allowing students to delete certain options at any time without changing the order of remaining options will solve other problems as well, and this does not create any problem for the counseling process. For example, we went through the historical need for "sliding" where we said that it was introduced because it was difficult to move from one institute to another at very short notice. Consider this. I have been allotted a program in NIT Allahabad. I certainly don't want to travel 700 KM to go to NIT Jaipur in the next round. However, I have no problems in moving to IIIT Allahabad, the college next door, in the next round. The "sliding" option does not help me there.
And hence what is needed is an option to delete some program/institute pairs from my original list at any time. And as long as the order of remaining options remain the same as in the original list, it won't create any problems for the allotment process. Having this option allows a more efficient allocation, which benefits all stakeholders.
Why is original order of preference sacrosanct?
There are many students who want to change their order of preference after the allotment process has started. This happens because they normally do not have adequate time to do a proper evaluation of all options and do fill up some of the options that they later regret. While we may not be sympathetic to such students, if allowing change would cause problems for our process and create confusion, but if nothing like that would happen, could we not allow some change of order of preferences?
Changing the original order of preference could lead to small problems. Let me give an example. Suppose JEE Rank 1 has given CSE at IIT Kanpur as the first option initially and received that admission offer. Now, she wants to change it to CSE at IIT Bombay after knowing that everyone prefers that IIT. If we allow this, in the next round, this girl will get CSE at IIT Bombay, and someone who had been offered CSE at IITB in the first round would be told, sorry, we are withdrawing our offer. A naive implementation would do this. So we need to be careful in implementation. No one should get a lower preference in any subsequent round. Once an offer of admission has been made, in future, the student must either remain with that admission offer or get an offer which was a higher preference. Under no circumstances can one be given a lower preference in a later round.
But does it mean that there can be no change in original order at all, and all changes will cause such problems. Certainly not. First of all, the logic of allotment can be changed to ensure that the student in our example above gets CSE at IITB only if a seat gets vacated under normal circumstances, and not otherwise. The logic will be a bit complicated but not something that can not be coded.
However, somethings can still be allowed without getting into such problems. If we consider a student who has received an admission offer to a program which was 10th in the preference list. At this time, any re-ordering of preferences within the top 9 preferences would not cause any difficulty or confusion in the subsequent rounds. The problem of what we describe above in the example of JEE 1 student happens when we want to shift any of the lower preferences to higher preferences. So if we are shifting what was earlier at #11 in this example to #9, we could potentially get into the problem.
As I state above, we could rewrite the logic of allotment to handle this as well, but if those managing counseling feel uncomfortable with that, at the very least we can do two thing that I have stated above:
1. Allow deletion of any option at any time, including when it is being offered.
2. Allow reordering of options among those which are higher than the currently allotted option.
The first one would enhance the efficiency of the process tremendously which is beneficial to all stakeholders. The second one would allow rethink on part of students.
Of course, this has security implications. If we allow such changes, what stops a hacker to change someone's options to benefit some other student. Notice that in the current system, for sliding or freezing, the student is required to be physically present in some location. We could do the same thing for any change in the list. You have to be physically present. Of course, that would mean increased costs. A person has to receive a form, verify identity, and then allow. To ensure that such changes are not done routinely and very frequently, one may keep some price for such a change. (And of course, the security implications are exaggerated. When we can allow banking transactions based on OTP and other second factor authentication, we could implement something similar for these changes as well.)