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Should College Admissions Be Done By Lottery?

June 22, 2012, 6:32 pm

If you haven’t opened your July/August issue of The Atlantic, please do so and flip to page 65. In a section devoted exclusively to ideas, Swarthmore philosophy professor Barry  Schwartz suggests that a way to lower the pressure for seats at selective colleges would be to draw the class by lottery.

Everyone who teaches at a selective school can tell sad stories about the wonderfully qualified children of friends who were not admitted or left to languish on the wait list.  There are so many kids who, as Schwartz notes, “worked hard and played by the rules” but are left feeling that they have failed. All of them would surely have capitalized on the opportunity to go to the school of their dreams.

What many students and their parents understand as a purely competitive process is, of course, artfully rigged in so many ways. An admissions staff crafts a class out of the many qualified applicants who submit their scores, essays, lists of extracurriculars, AP classes and good deeds. Admissions people know they leave many wonderful students on the cutting room floor. But every class must have its own feng shuiEvery cohort of entering frosh is titrated carefully to have the right elements, to meet its obligations to the various athletic teams and to wealthy alums, and to make sure there are enough students who appear to be serious about science (regardless of your interests, if you’ve taken the high school courses to make it plausible, say you are interested in science.) Each class must draw on many different regions of the country, and many nations. There must be fifty percent men so that the college doesn’t look femme, and the smart heterosexual girls will believe they will have a shot at the boyfriend they didn’t have in high school. And of course we need celebrities and the children of celebrities.

Recently there has been a kerfuffle at Zenith, my old employer, because of a decision by Not At All New President and the Board of Trustees to end a completely need-blind admissions policy (for links that will take you to much of this news, go here.) It’s rare that I see righteousness on both sides of an institutional struggle, but this is one of those times.  The students who want Zenith to be 100% need blind see this as just. They view it  an essential feature of a democratic institution, which they define as being composed of students who are not chosen just because they have the do-re-mi.

Unfortunately, what my dear former students (who would also like to believe that they got into Zenith only because they deserved it) fail to see is that it is perfectly obvious what kind of money applicants have by looking at the information that is not on the financial aid form. Here’s what the application itself tells you: what mommy does for a living, what daddy does for a living, where both parents went to school, who has advanced degrees (and from what school), where your siblings went to school, if anybody in your family actually went to college at all, what zip code you live in and the SAT scores that correlate less with intelligence than with your income tax bracket.

What does it mean for admissions to be fair, given how unfair it is to turn anyone down from a college where s/he has a realistic chance of success? The solution, Schwartz suggests, “is a lottery:

every applicant who is good enough gets his or her name put in a hat, and then “winners” are chosen at random. If selective schools use a lottery, the pressure balloon that is engulfing high-school kids will be punctured. Instead of having to be better than anyone else, they will just have to be good enough—and lucky. Anyone who is good enough gets her name thrown into the hat, and has the same chance of admission as anyone else with a name in the hat.

A lottery like this won’t correct the injustice that is inherent in a pyramidal system in which not everyone can rise to the top. But it will reveal the injustice by highlighting the role of contingency and luck. And acknowledging the role of chance may encourage the institutions themselves to care a bit less about where they place in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, and a bit more about where they rate when it comes to nurturing good citizens.

I think this is brilliant since, in many ways, college admissions is already a kind of lottery. But it is a lottery in which the admissions department is weighting the wheel here and there to admit the class that will properly reflect the college’s chosen image.

A real lottery system might allow institutions to save money by shrinking college admissions staff, which have grown to behemoth size as the marketing emphasis on selectivity has required recruiting  perhaps 150 applicants for every possible place in the class.

The other thing a lottery might accomplish is to intervene in student fantasies about who does — or does not — “belong” at Snappy Ivy U.  One nasty side effect of the intense competitiveness that has, in large part, been created by selective institutions themselves, is that the students who do get to campus get to imagine their privilege as entirely earned, rather than as the effects of a series of weighted lotteries in which they have been chosen to step over the bodies of a great many deserving “losers.”

The Atlantic didn’t ask, but here’s my contribution: how about a system in which every college and university agreed to use the Common App, and each student were only permitted to apply to six schools. An applicant would have to rank a preference for each school from one to six, would be guaranteed entry to one, but could not be admitted to more than two?

This would eliminate the multiple admissions that some students garner, while other students are kicked out of the pool altogether or wait listed.

Readers? What would be your chosen reform to the college admissions game?

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