The Ivy Coach Daily

May 10, 2024

Should Elite Colleges Run Admissions Like a Lottery System?

Admissions Lottery, Lottery Admissions System, College Admissions Lottery
It’s time to put the idea of a college admissions lottery system to bed (photo credit: Namkota).

Previously Published on August 1, 2018:

The admissions process to America’s elite universities is far from perfect. Recruited athletes in squash and golf, swimming, and field hockey enjoy a leg up. So, too, do the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of a school’s dedicated alumni base (except the schools that have rightly eliminated legacy admission). Students from middle-income families often get squeezed. The list goes on.

So, what’s the fix? Over the years, we at Ivy Coach have proposed many ideas for making the admissions process fairer for all — from eliminating legacy admission to training admissions officers on combatting their implicit biases against certain groups of applicants to reducing the number of athletic teams with earmarked recruiting slots. But our modest proposals have never generated as much excitement as instituting an admissions lottery system. That’s right — a lottery system.

The Idea of A College Admissions Lottery System

Every year, we come across a press piece in which someone who thinks their idea is fresh suggests instituting a lottery system in admissions. These admissions revolutionaries, as they likely consider themselves, typically suggest that all students who meet specific minimum benchmarks should have an equal chance of admission.

For instance, Alia Wong suggested an admissions lottery system in a piece for The Atlantic a few years back. As Wong wrote, “But what if Harvard created a fixed set of criteria that it deems desirable — say, an SAT score of 1470 or above, a 3.5 or higher GPA, a demonstrable interest and aptitude in particular non-academic activities, a record of overcoming obstacles, and so on? To continue to promote diversity, the school could give extra weight to certain applicants depending on, say, their zip code, the kind of high school they attended, their income, and their race. Then admissions officers could use those criteria to whittle down their batch of 40,000 applicants to a much smaller pool of qualified contenders and from there select the final 2,000 or so through a lottery (not everyone who’s admitted attends).”

The Pitfalls of A College Admissions Lottery System

However, such a lottery system leaves little room for the more human element needed to shape an incoming class at our nation’s most selective universities. After all, what if a student expressed a hatred for Jewish students in an essay? Would the lottery system flag this applicant as potentially problematic, especially as so many of America’s college campuses boil over with antisemitic hate? What if a student had an upward trajectory with their grades through high school? Would the lottery system account for maturation and growth? We can poke endless holes in any proposed lottery system, mainly because we know they’d be even less meritocratic than the current imperfect system.

Suggestions for a New College Admissions System Require More Thought

When we at Ivy Coach suggested eliminating legacy admission, we acknowledged that the practice subsidizes the education of low-income and first-generation college students who require financial aid. As such, we never suggested eliminating it across all colleges in one fell swoop. Instead, we proposed an imperfect compromise: maintaining legacy admission for the progeny of major donors so these donors will continue to subsidize the education of low-income and first-generation college students who require aid to attend while freeing up the earmarked slots for legacy applicants who are not the progeny of major donors.

Likewise, when we suggested reducing the number of seats for recruited athletes in an incoming class, we didn’t suggest eliminating slots for football and basketball teams. These sports are vital to the culture of America’s universities — even at the Ivy League schools. Instead, we suggested eliminating earmarked slots for athletic teams that don’t contribute to the culture of the schools, like tennis and equestrian. Again, it’s an imperfect proposal, but at least it’s realistic.

Suggesting that America’s elite colleges switch to a lottery-based system is a pipe dream. This totally unrealistic suggestion will not move admissions leaders across the land to think and reconsider their policies. As such, we suggest that those who fancy themselves to be admissions revolutionaries develop some more plausible, less hackneyed ideas.

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