Students, Faculty Members Frustrated With Course Lotteries

Course lotteries are designed to make the process for enrollment in high-demand courses more equitable, but students and professors at the College who have been involved in lotteries say that, particularly in General Education courses, the arrangment is often frustrating and inconvenient.

Course lotteries, which have existed at the College for at least 30 years, mandate that students enter a preferential or non-preferential lottery for classes that cannot accommodate the number of students interested in enrolling. Factors that could limit enrollment include classroom size and the number of teaching fellows assigned to a given course.

Students interviewed for this story said that they have felt the pressure from such tight restrictions on enrollment in some courses.

Jacob R. Carrel 16, who was lotteried into a class last semester, said that the combination of course lotteries and shopping week augments students’ stress during their first week of classes.

“It can be really frustrating,” Carrel said. “Especially if you’re looking for an outside job or internship and need to know your schedule.”

Another common complaint from students and professors is that the course lotteries run too close to the study card deadline.

For Computer Science 20: “Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science," professor Harry R. Lewis ’68 said that while his course did not have a lottery, he was still signing as many as two to four study cards for every student, a precaution that many undergraduates take in the event they do not get lotteried into their desired course.

“There were all these students who were waiting on lotteries for General Education courses, and that just seemed bizarre and unfortunate,” he said.

Some classes, like United States and the World 35: “Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K-12 Education,” gave preference to students who had entered the lottery in previous semesters but were not accepted. Others courses, like History of Science 153: “History of Dietetics,” gave preference to concentrators.

Still, some courses retain non-preferential lotteries in which they do not take into account a student’s class year, concentration, or Gen Ed needs.

“In general, I’d prefer not to have to [lottery]. It’s only really used in cases to benefit the students,” said John Huth, professor of Science of the Physical Universe 26: “Primitive Navigation,” whose course lottery was non-preferential.

“We didn’t approach this lightly, and we tried not to lottery the course,” he added.

Other professors said that pre-term planning did not accurately predict enrollment numbers for the spring semester.

Steven Shapin, the professor for History of Science 15, said pre-term planning had predicted an expected enrollment of 22 students, but about 60 students expressed interest during shopping week, Shapin wrote in an email to The Crimson. Through a lottery, Shapin ultimately accepted 42 students, with the expectation that some would choose not to enroll in the course.

Neither prior experience nor pre-term planning allowed us to anticipate this demand,” Shapin wrote.

Though some students who do not lottery into a course can get accepted off a waitlist, Charles A. Scherr 17 said that after being waitlisted for History 97e: “Commodities in International History,” he emailed the professor, to no avail.

“I was sort of disappointed,” Scherr said. “No one on the waitlist got in.”

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at mbernhard@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on twitter @Meg_Bernhard.

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