Should Harvard Select Students Based on Lottery?

A reader who graduated from Harvard last year, Eric, responds to Li’s latest note:

Your reader, Ethan, jokingly mentions that “will Harvard soon be doing away with its admissions process and allowing entrance by lottery? Of course not.” In fact, last month, such a scenario could have easily begun to come to pass.

In the spirit of disruption that pervades this year, a slate of outsider candidates calling for “Free Harvard, Fair Harvard” successfully petitioned for inclusion on the ballot for election to the Board of Overseers, one of two governing boards of Harvard. (Unusually, Overseers are elected by the alumni, allowing such a scenario to be mechanistically possible.)

Their campaign platform, in brief, was two-fold: redirect the university endowment to eliminate undergraduate tuition, and increase “transparency” in undergraduate admissions. As detailed in a very thorough article in Harvard Magazine, one of the petition candidates, Ron Unz, has explicitly proposed using a lottery to select the vast majority of the undergraduate class.

The reasoning behind that proposal from Unz—a former businessman and former publisher of The American Conservative—is complex and thought-provoking. You don’t usually hear a business conservative proposing free college tuition at a private university, but Unz is pushing for it based on a conservative belief in meritocracy and an opposition to affirmative action. The lottery part of his admissions scheme is also meant to prevent the deliberate admission of students based on race or ethnicity, a process at Harvard that is now, according to Unz’s research, under-admitting Asian Americans and over-admitting Jewish students relative to merit. Read the bottom of this note for a fuller view of his research and reasoning, but here’s the gist of what Unz is proposing, excerpted from the Harvard Magazine piece:

His solution is “two rings” of admissions. For an entering Harvard College class, the inner ring, of perhaps 300 academic and intellectual stars, would be carefully selected on purely objective academic and intellectual meritocratic criteria (“representing just the top 2 percent of America’s [National Merit Scholar] semifinalists”) from among the most promising candidates. Everyone else, the outer ring in each class (1,300 undergraduates per year), could be selected randomly—the proverbial flip of the coin—from among all the applicants who seem able to handle rigorous undergraduate studies.