Lotteries May Be the Fairest Way to Fix Elite-College Admissions

Proposals to institute a random-selection process have reemerged in response to a lawsuit alleging that Harvard penalizes Asian American applicants.

A tour group walks through the campus of Harvard University. (Elise Amendola / AP)

A federal court has in recent weeks unsealed a trove of documents revealing how Harvard decides whom to admit out of the 40,000 or so students who apply each year for its roughly 1,600 freshman seats. The documents, provided as part of a 2014 lawsuit filed by the organization Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), which represents Asian Americans who at some point were rejected from Harvard, contain compelling evidence that the university’s admissions system disadvantages Asian applicants. Behind the scenes, the plaintiffs allege, the school’s admissions officers engaged in crafty tactics to build freshman classes comprised of students with a range of backgrounds, interests, and strengths. This scheme, according to the lawsuit, which is slated to go to trial in October, entails a degree of racial balancing that disadvantages Asian Americans and thus violates federal civil-rights law.

I’ve argued that ascertaining whether Harvard does indeed discriminate on the basis of race is all but impossible. The university, like most of the country’s elite higher-education institutions, takes a holistic approach to admissions: Rather than looking strictly at an applicant’s standardized-test scores and GPA, officers also consider where she’s from (to ensure geographic diversity on campus), what her professional goals are (to ensure academic diversity), what her non-academic strengths are (to ensure extracurricular diversity), what kind of person she is (to ensure incoming freshmen will infuse the campus culture with leadership, charisma, and benevolence), and so on. The court filings suggest that Asian American applicants in particular are penalized when it comes to that last category. They consistently received lower rankings when it came to their soft skills—traits ranging from “likeability” to “courage”—which aligns with harmful stereotypes about Asian Americans. This seemed to indicate that some degree of racial bias is influencing admissions decisions—though it hardly proves it.

[Asian Americans have a thorny relationship with affirmative action.]

As Natasha Warikoo, an associate professor of education at Harvard and the author of The Diversity Bargain, a book about the role of race at elite universities, recently told me, “There’s no such thing as a perfect admissions system that leads to ‘a meritocracy.’” In other words, no matter what, any admissions process is inherently going to privilege one group over another. And when the criteria are so fuzzy, there’s no way to definitively identify, let alone root out, discrimination.

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, including Warikoo, 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.

In this system, “instead of being the ‘best,’ [students] would only have to be ‘good enough’—and lucky,” wrote Barry Schwartz, a psychologist at Swarthmore College, in a 2015 opinion piece for The New York Times. And while it may feel unjust to the students who aren’t lucky enough to get their name drawn out of a hat, experts have long argued that such a strategy is in fact the most fair. As the philosopher Peter Stone wrote in the journal Comparative Education Review, “Fairness … requires random selection under the right circumstances.”

The idea of a lottery system as a fix for elite-college admissions isn’t new. Lani Guinier, a professor emerita of law at Harvard, for example, broached the idea in a 1997 Times op-ed on affirmative action: Schools, she wrote, could establish a minimum test score; students “who offer qualities that are considered valuable would then have their names entered more than once … to increase their chances of being selected.”

And the benefits of such a system would, proponents argue, extend beyond creating transparency in colleges’ racial-diversity efforts. In a 2005 op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Schwartz described the elite-college admissions process as “a fool’s errand”—one that disadvantages both students and schools.

For example, Schwartz contended, lotteries would encourage a certain degree of risk-taking among high-school students. In recognizing that their admission is random, perhaps highly qualified high-schoolers would embrace their passions and explore their intrinsic interests rather than pad their resumes with accomplishments and activities they think—and have been told—those elite colleges prioritize. Under the current model, “everything they do is calculated to produce better credentials—high grades, great SAT scores, impressive extracurricular activities,” Schwartz wrote. “They choose classes that play to their strengths, rather than those that might correct their weaknesses or nurture new interests.” The result, he argued, is a “distorted adolescence” for many of the country’s most talented youth.

[Getting into an elite college is a frenzied, soul-deadening process.]

The current approach to admissions, Schwartz concluded, could even undermine students’ learning and academic performance once they get to college. “By making students so competitive, our selective institutions are subverting their own educational aims,” he wrote. “They are admitting students who have done things for the wrong reasons in high school, and who are likely to be disappointing in college.” By reducing the transactional nature of elite-college admissions, a lottery system could reverse that trend. (Such a system could also save families money, reducing parents’ urge to invest in test-prep courses and tutoring, extracurricular activities, and private education in the hopes that such spending will give their kids a leg up in the admissions process.)

The proposal certainly has its opponents, including those who believe that a lottery is at odds with the principles of a meritocracy, which the country’s elite colleges and universities theoretically promote. Some argue that this model would simply shift the emphasis toward what criteria make or break an applicant’s chance of making it into lottery territory, ultimately failing to fully eliminate the problems it was designed to address. Jeffrey Selingo, an Atlantic contributing writer, has also noted that a lottery system probably wouldn’t “pass muster” with the Justice Department because antitrust law (which the department enforces) prevents colleges from sharing information with each other about applicants—a practice that would likely be integral to such a system.

Still, lotteries aren’t uncommon at charter schools in the country, as well as at colleges outside the U.S. As Stone, the philosopher, points out, England’s Leeds Metropolitan University and Huddersfield University use a lottery to determine applicants’ admission to their highly sought-after physiotherapy courses; universities across the Netherlands have likewise historically used a random-selection process to admit students to their medical, veterinary, and professional schools, giving extra weight to applicants with higher exam scores. The systems have faced scrutiny, but proponents of lotteries argue that their results are much fairer than the kinds of practices employed by America’s elite institutions.

But lotteries would only have a chance to make admissions fairer if all elite colleges embraced the system. On Monday, more than a dozen highly selective schools filed a court document in support of Harvard’s current practices. If that is any indication, a complete countrywide overhaul of admissions is very unlikely.