Demand Surpasses Supply in Comp Sci

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Faced with limited resources and much demand, the Computer Science Department cannot afford to give preference to seniors looking for an Introduction to Computer Science (CS21) or lab class.

“I signed up for the class and I figured, I’m a senior, I figured I’d get first dibs,” said Michelle Fennell ’12, who was lotteried out of CS21 last semester. “[…] especially since I needed the class, not for my major but I needed it for a science lab.”

According to Richard Wicentowski, associate professor of computer science, this isn’t how the CS21 lottery works: the department preferences sophomores, then freshman, then seniors, then juniors. Last semester 33 people were lotteried out of the class, which has three sections of 28 students.

“We want to make sure people who want to be majors can get in first,” he said, “some of our best majors are people who came here and didn’t know they liked CS until they took 21.”

But if there is so much demand why not open another section? wondered Fennell, who had heard rumors that the department was “aloof” to these concerns.

“We don’t have enough faculty to offer four sections we barely have enough faculty to offer three sections,” said Wicentowski, who added that the three sections already put strain on the department.

Most computer science classes are offered only once every two years because of limited faculty, which causes “pent-up demand” and high enrollment. The department has moved CS35 from the lab to the classroom to accommodate more students, changing the class from a hands-on experience to a lecture. In CS37 students sit on plastic folding chairs with laptops on their laps.

Wicentowski says the department can’t really offer seminar-sized class anymore for their upper-level courses. It is the smallest department in the sciences with four tenured professors, though they are adding a fifth next year. There are around 15 majors every year.

“It’s always tough to make these decisions because of course you want to let everyone in but you have to find someway to be consistent,” said Academic Support Coordinator Frances Ruiz of the CS21 lottery. She stressed that most of the people who showed continued interest in the class were accommodated.

Fennell, a transfer student, was able to find the substitute credits from her former institution for the lab course.

Registrar Martin Warner commented that lottery policies are up to the discretion of the department, but he “would like every department to list their lottery procedures on their website.”

Correction: The CS21 lottery prefers seniors over juniors, so the order is as follows: sophomores, freshman, seniors, juniors. The article stated that juniors would get preference over seniors, which is incorrect.


  1. To clarify the CS Dept’s lottery policy – the order of preference is:


    The original article states that Seniors are last, but that is not accurate.

    –Frances Ruiz, Academic Support Coordinator for CS

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