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Elite College Admissions Should Be Determined by Lottery

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The explosive Varsity Blues college admissions scandal is the story that has launched a thousand thinkpieces, and more than a few funny memes.

It sits at the intersection of parental concern, social status insecurity, and genuine outrage at economic injustice. It’s particularly resonant for upper-middle-class journalists whose professional qualifications often begin with a degree from a selective university.

Another big college admissions story—less salacious, perhaps, but no less scandalous—has also been in the news. Harvard is currently facing a lawsuit regarding its admissions practices, in which the plaintiffs have claimed that Asian-American applicants are rejected at a higher rate than other applicants, allegedly to make room for more affirmative-action admissions. This at the same time that Harvard legacy admissions applicants (a cohort that is disproportionately white) have a much easier time getting admitted than others, which further complicates the discussion.

As Ross Douthat stated in a recent New York Times piece:

In their different ways all these scandals feed into two critiques of elite academia, one more left-wing and one more right-wing, which take different routes to the same condemnatory claim: These schools claim to be meritocratic, but they aren’t.

There isn’t a silver bullet that would fix the inequities in elite college admissions. And it’s fair to say elite college admissions policies aren’t the most important higher education access issues we face today, given that only a tiny sliver of college students (and their families) are affected by such policies. But it’s also true that graduates of highly-selective universities have an outsized influence on American society. So, how such universities select their students, and by extension their future graduates, is a matter of importance to society in general.

I propose that admissions to elite colleges be determined by lottery, with these schools setting a minimum criteria to limit access to the lottery pool so as to maintain academic selectivity. Once you’re over that baseline, your name is in the hat. Elite colleges know the minimum qualifications students must have in order to do well at their college, and they can set the lottery pool criteria accordingly.

The truth is, while aspiring students must have a certain level of preparation and intellectual capability to do well at schools like Yale or Stanford, one need not be a genius to thrive at such schools. It’s been said — by former Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, no less — that Harvard could fill its first-year class twice over with valedictorians. Harvard doesn’t do so, presumably, because valedictorians’ qualities aren’t necessary to succeed there. And they have other admissions goals.

Admittedly there are some majors this wouldn’t work with, like admissions to selective music conservatories or fine arts programs. But I suspect this method would work for the bulk of elite college admissions. Also, universities could tinker with the lottery selection process to ensure gender balance, regional and ethnic diversity, and other desirable admissions goals, though I think such tinkering should be minimized if not completely avoided so as to not replicate the “class curation” issue that currently is under critique.

Even with such tinkering, as long as the exceptions don’t swallow the rule and are ancillary to the general enterprise of creating a broad lottery pool, a lottery system at elite universities would produce a radically different admission process. In addition, if many universities adopt such a system, perhaps a “match” process, similar to the one currently in place for medical schools and residencies, could be set up that would link students with preferred schools, as Professor Natasha Warikoo from Harvard suggests.

Usage of a lottery would help demystify a process that already includes a lot of randomness. And it would help remove concerns about cultural prejudices or social privileges influencing admissions. For a lottery to work, you’d need to abolish legacy preferences in elite college admissions, and I support that too.

It also might help transform attitudes among both students at elite schools and their graduates. To quote Princeton professor Dalton Conley:

With lady luck out in the open, the narrative would change. Those who attend the crème-de-la-crème schools would know they got there at least in part by chance. Maybe these lucky kids would be a little humbler or even grateful.

Some critics of this idea say it undermines concepts of competitiveness and meritocracy that are healthy aspects of university admissions. But the creation of a baseline for admissions allows for such academic competitiveness. And I’d question whether the current process is a true meritocracy. Those doubts have only been deepened by the admissions scandal.

Further, as Alia Wong (citing the work of Barry Schwartz at Swarthmore College) wrote at The Atlantic,

lotteries would encourage a certain degree of risk-taking among high-school students. In recognizing that their admission is random, perhaps highly qualified high-schoolers would embrace their passions and explore their intrinsic interests rather than pad their resumes with accomplishments and activities they think — and have been told — those elite colleges prioritize.

A lottery system employing rigorous baseline criteria for admission into the lottery pool would go a long way to diminishing inequities and would help rebuild credibility for elite universities whose reputations have been damaged by recent reports of their misbehavior.

Perhaps if concerns about equity won’t spur elite colleges to change, those reputational issues will spur them to look at this kind of radical change for a deeply broken system which has downstream consequences that are harming the social fabric of society more broadly.

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Thanks !

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