A lottery for college admissions? You're not fixing the problem

With all the arguments about college admission policies lately, particularly the treatment of Asian applicants at Harvard, some changes may be on the way. Sadly, this is a challenge which seems unlikely to produce a solution which will satisfy everyone. Arguments about racial quotas, the fairness of admission tests and the various criteria used to determine who gets into the nation’s top schools have become increasingly raw. But at the Washington Post, Dalton Conley, a professor from Princeton, offers a plan which could possibly be worse than everything we have in place today. Conley is suggesting that we scrap most of the current criteria and simply go with a lottery among candidates who meet certain minimum qualifications. Here’s a short piece of it.

[W]hat is the value of going to a highly selective school such as Harvard, Yale or Princeton?

There’s one sure way to resolve both these debates: a lottery.

Here’s how it would work: Universities would set minimum standards of admission. These could be as high or low as the schools like, considering a mix of criteria such as SAT scores, class rank, personal essay, extracurricular activities and challenges such as overcoming economic hardship (all rated separately and blindly). After a cull using this automated scoring — applicants would need, say, a combination equivalent to a 3.7 grade-point average, 4 out of 5 on the essays/activities and 1500 on the SATs — the final selection for acceptance would be done purely by lottery. The key is that the evaluation is made without any knowledge of the candidates’ legacy status, race, geographic location or other criteria. It is an intentionally piecemeal system in contrast to the current approach that admissions officers pretend is “holistic.” If schools wanted to weight certain factors for diversity purposes, they could do it at the drawing stage.

At first glance, I can see the appeal of this suggestion. What’s more fair than a completely random selection process? It would have the benefit of removing questions about racial or gender bias in the application process. But Professor Conley shoots his own plan in the foot before it even gets off the ground while not really addressing some of the loudest complaints about current college admission procedures.

The two major demographic arguments in the admissions debate center on race and gender. The gender issue has largely been rendered moot already, with more women getting into college than men at many schools. (It’s estimated that 56% of all freshmen at American colleges and universities this year were women.) While it may never be an exact match, a fairly even split of men and women seems sustainable and fair.

The problem comes with racial disparities in numbers. In a truly colorblind society, it wouldn’t matter how many people of each race were accepted provided the highest performing students got into the best schools they applied to. But it’s become accepted in the courts and the court of liberal public opinion that the college admission system is not a meritocracy and must be artificially shifted for a more even distribution among the races. Even Conley’s seemingly “random” admission lottery plan is undermined when he admits that the school could “weight certain factors for diversity purposes” at the drawing stage. But if the lottery entrants are anonymous, how would you do that?

But let’s say that there is no such “weighting” taking place. The country’s racial profile has been changing, but slowly. There are still more white families (though Hispanic families are catching up quickly) vying to get their kids into school. Black families still account for well below 20% of the population. Also, owing to a variety of endemic factors, more white families have children graduating high school and applying to the upper tier schools on a per capita basis. If it’s a truly random system, you’re going to wind up with far fewer black students than quotas require.

At the other end of the scale are the Asian families. Last time I checked their high school graduation rate was somewhere in the range of 215%. (I kid… I kid… but it’s extremely high.) They outperform all the other students on average and their families tend to move Heaven and Earth to give them every edge possible. And let’s be clear… they earned it. But as of the last census, Asian Americans still only account for roughly 5% of the population. If you go to a truly blind lottery system, you’re probably going to wipe out a lot of the Asian applicants even though the vast majority of them may be among the most highly qualified.

So, in closing, I don’t see how this lottery system helps anything. In fact, it may take the current issues under debate and make them even worse.