What If There Was a College-Admissions Lottery?

A not-so-crazy hypothetical reveals the problems with universities' hyper-competitive selection processes.
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For most universities, prestige is measured in thin envelopes. Stanford, for instance, just made news for rejecting a record 95 percent of its applicants. Call it the era of extreme selectivity: A decade ago, only two universities turned away nine out of ten applicants; today, a dozen do. But whether historically low acceptance rates have been caused by a rise in the number of applications submitted by each student, or even by globalization, there's still a big assumption being made: that selectivity is always in the best interests of universities.

This is dangerously shortsighted. At a certain point, extreme selectivity becomes actively harmful to universities and their self-professed missions: It results in borderline dishonesty about the admissions process; it breeds anxiety in the parents of younger and younger children; and it can reward branding and hyper-specialization at the expense of learning.

Admissions offices have reported that many rejected and admitted applicants are “indistinguishable.” For a substantial part of the applicant pool, officers are making essentially random decisions about who gets an acceptance letter. Promoting a narrative that the college admissions process consistently finds the very best and the very brightest, and concealing the inherent chance involved in evaluating these virtually identical candidates, is both wrong and harmful.

So here’s an idea: Embrace the crapshoot. Reform the admissions process to include lotteries. Admissions officers are already making random decisions about indistinguishable candidates; why not just put those candidates into a lottery and let chance decide? Imagine that the most selective universities doubled their “acceptance rates” and entered all “accepted” applicants into a 50-50 lottery for admission. Allowing chance to play a visible role in college admissions—or more accurately, acknowledging the role it already plays—would help dilute the harms of extreme selectivity.

A college lottery may seem like an impossible thought experiment. But there are consequences to universities barreling towards tens of thousands of rejection letters. In the race toward lower and lower acceptance rates, what do universities lose along the way? 

For one thing, extreme selectivity distorts academic life. As the political theorist Michael Walzer has argued, high-stakes meritocracies of all kinds are similarly self-defeating. In each case, there’s no guarantee that the traits we want to uncover are the same ones we are measuring and rewarding. Think of the inevitable gap between, say, a civil servant’s practical judgment and his or her ability to cram for a civil service exam. In the context of college admissions, this is similar to the difference between having actual intellectual curiosity and the ability to project curiosity in application packets. In these kinds of high-stakes situations, applicants are driven to cultivate measurable virtues, potentially at the expense of truly desirable traits. 

Walzer asks us to reflect on what is probably the highest-stakes meritocratic process that has ever been devised: the examination system that gave imperial China centuries of administrators. For three days, aspiring bureaucrats locked themselves in the examination cells—armed with little more than writing brushes, food provisions, and a sleeping mat—to take the test that could seal their futures. The examinations were remarkably blind to social class and connections. But in a quest to identify deserving candidates in as fair a way as possible, the exams were eventually reduced to tests of rote memorization of the Confucian classics. As the system aged, “what was tested, increasingly, was the ability to take a test.”

The more prestige and power that rests on any such test, writes Walzer, the greater its gravitational pull: “The replacement of intellectual life by ‘examination life’ is probably inevitable as soon as the examination becomes the chief means of social advance.”

American admissions processes hinge on more than a single test, but college applications have definitely become the “chief means of social advance.” In the same way that the Confucian examinations came to reward test-taking ability, highly selective admissions processes reward mastery of the admissions process, warping the educations of ambitious high-schoolers years before they get to college. It has transformed secondary and primary schools into angst-driven extensions of the admissions process—all the way down to the rise of standardized testing for four-year-olds.

Extreme selectivity and the admissions process tend to reward effective self-branders—the people who are able to craft the most distinctive narratives of achievement and ambition out of the pile of 30,000 to 40,000 applications that the most selective schools receive. Can you build a robust intellectual community only made up of self-salespeople? Possibly, but the traits privileged in admissions processes may cut against those that universities describe as central to learning. To pick one example from many, here’s how the Stanford admissions page defines “intellectual vitality”: “Genuine interest in expanding your intellectual horizons ... The kind of curiosity and enthusiasm that will allow you to spark a lively discussion in a freshman seminar and continue the conversation at a dinner table ... Seek[ing] out opportunities that expand your perspective.”

Curiosity, risk-taking, innovation, love of learning beyond one’s specialist niche: Universities seem entirely sincere when they call those qualities the foundation of intellectual life. But there’s something ironic in these boilerplate love letters to the ideal student: The process designed to unearth such students is also prone to overlook them.

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Rob Goodman is the the co-author of Rome's Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar and a Ph.D. student in political science at Columbia University. He is a former congressional speechwriter.

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