They don’t work.
Prior to UTM bringing in course waiting lists last year, I had never failed to get into a course I wanted on account of it being full. Last year, I was denied three courses. Yet, everybody seems to think they’re a great idea.
The argument goes: fairness dictates that courses be first come first serve. Prior to the wait list, if a course was full, you had to log on to ROSI every few hours waiting for a spot to be available. A wait list preserves your spot in the queue. Consider a course with an enrollment limit of 50 students. Prior to the wait list, the 51st student to try to sign up would not be guaranteed the first opening if someone dropped the course. If the 100th student to attempt to sign up happened to do so just after a drop, then he would be successful. Or, if the 52nd student kept coming back every few hours, he might get the spot even though number 51 got there first. A wait list ensures that number 51 gets the 51st chance to sign up. Fair, no?
No. If number 52 cares so much about getting into the course, then, in all fairness, he should get in.
A bird in hand…
People seem to think that they will be more likely to get the courses they want if they can just put their name on a wait list. There are two problems. One, as stated above, a person who is only marginally interested in the course is granted the same priority as a person who is desperate to take the class. Two, wait lists result in dead lock: no sane person is going to drop a course they have while they sit on a wait list in the course that they really want.
Imagine I really want to take PHL245 but it is full with a wait list of 14 people. I add my name to the wait list but, realizing my odds are slim, I sign up for a class I don’t want to take (PHL274) just in case. PHL274 fills up with people doing the same thing because nobody wants to get caught without a full course load. This happens to all the courses. Every course is full and wait listed. A few weeks pass and people start reconsidering their original decisions. Someone in PHL245 decides that PHL274 looks like fun. But, whoops, the course has a wait list of 20 people and is filled with people who are either reconsidering their decision or never wanted the course in the first place. Very few people will move.
Without wait lists, I would drop a course I didn’t want to take because I know that something will open up if I am persistent. But with wait lists, I know that nothing is going to open up.
Without wait lists, I will get into the courses that I really want, because I will put extra effort in. With wait lists, I will get into the courses that are available on sign up day and people who want courses less than me will get into courses that I really want because their start time was earlier than mine.