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.