An Admissions 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).

Each and every year, folks suggest that the college admissions system is broken. They cite how Asian American students with perfect or near-perfect grades and scores are so often denied admission by the schools of their dreams. They cite how athletes and legacies have an unfair advantage, often earning admission in spite of low grades and test scores. They cite how students from elite boarding schools have an edge over students from schools that don’t have longstanding relationships with colleges. The list goes on. But most of these folks who lament a broken college admissions system then either don’t propose any ideas whatsoever to fix the system or they propose ridiculous, hackneyed ideas — like the notion of a college admissions lottery — that should be put to bed once and for all.

The Idea of An Admissions Lottery System

Now most folks who propose a college admissions lottery system don’t offer much in the way of specifics. Maybe they just think all high school students — irrespective of their grades, scores, moral character, extracurricular involvements, etc. — should have the same chance of admission. Of course, that’s absurd. And while we think any admissions system based on a lottery is absurd, we at least applaud a writer in “The Atlantic,” Alia Wong, for proposing some parameters to her bad idea.

As she writes in a piece entitled “Lotteries May Be the Fairest Way to Fix Elite-College Admissions,” “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). Proponents…suggest that this approach could help Harvard (and other universities) avoid accusations of racial discrimination while still helping it achieve its goal of building a diverse class.”

The Pitfalls of An Admissions Lottery System

While Wong offers a qualifier (“and so on”), think of the kinds of students who could slip through the cracks and earn admission over deserving candidates if such a lottery system were in place. Just to cite an extreme example to drive home our point, a student who expresses a proclivity for committing homicide in an admissions essay could be such a candidate who earns a slot. But because he has a 3.5 or higher GPA, a 1470 on the SAT, a demonstrable interest and aptitude for baseball, and more, he could earn admission over a deserving student who hasn’t expressed a proclivity for committing murder. Our point is that a lottery system would remove the holistic, human element in highly selective college admissions…and that could be catastrophic.

And, yes, Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, did slip through the cracks at the Harvard admissions office (and at the University of Michigan too). So we do recognize that bit of irony.


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