Forget Stressing Over Which Major to Choose—This College Assigns It by Lottery

Don’t want to study engineering at the University of Southern China? Too bad.
Graduates in Yunnan province, China. (Photo: Wu Junsong/ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)
Sep 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Most advice for students on how to choose a college major falls into two camps: Follow your passion or be practical. Some experts counsel freshmen to take a wide range of classes to figure out what they’re interested in, while cash-strapped parents who are picking up the tab might tell undergrads to make a beeline for whatever employers need. (Nope, it's not English lit.)

And then there’s the University of South China, which has created a controversial third choice: It’s assigning some students majors through a random lottery system.

The school, which is located about eight hours north of Hong Kong, has approximately 33,000 undergraduate students. And although the United States still has fewer students choosing to be science and technology majors than employment projections indicate are needed, that’s not the case at the University of South China. Too many sophomores at the university want to declare certain engineering majors, so last week the school had more than 500 civil engineering students gather in an auditorium, where they then drew majors randomly.

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“We were forced to take these measures. If choosing a major is solely based on students’ wants, some majors will be overcrowded and others will have difficulty enrolling enough students. There are some other colleges that use this method,” Lu Qinghua, an official with the school, told Xinhua News Agency.

It may sound like a draconian policy to folks in the U.S., where schools simply phase out majors that students aren’t pursuing or create majors for in-demand fields. Majoring in ethnic studies, for example, wasn’t an option until student strikes led to the creation of a program at San Francisco State University in 1969. However, it turns out that American students are no longer studying what they’re interested in.

In 2012, the Freshman Survey, an annual effort from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, found a striking shift in how U.S. students are choosing what to study. Nearly 86 percent of freshmen reported that they're in college “to be able to get a better job." That’s a marked change from before the economic crash when most students indicated they were pursuing higher education “to learn more about things that interest me.”

But what happens if a student enrolled at the University of Southern China is unhappy about the major this educational version of the Hogwarts Sorting Hat gives him or her? The student can try to convince another person to switch. Or, as an official from the school told Xinhua, “The top 10 percent of students will have the opportunity to change to a major they really want.” In other words, if students don’t earn straight As, they’re stuck studying whatever they drew in the lottery.

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Meanwhile, nearly 300,000 Chinese students headed to U.S. universities for the 2013–2014 school year, a 17 percent increase from the year before, according to the Institute of International Education. And some of them were drawn to the opportunity to experience agonizing over which major to choose.

“I want to go where I can learn whatever I want,” 20-year-old University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign student Junfeng Guan told BBC News in June about his decision to decline a spot at a university in Shanghai.

The response from the Chinese public seems mixed. “This will offer no solution to the problem, only complaints about what others are studying!” one critic wrote on the Sina Weibo social network, reported BBC News. But as another commenter noted, if resources are limited and students are willing, “what is fairer than this?”