Admission by Lottery

Dylan Matthews is quite right that there’s a good case to be made that elite schools should do admissions by lottery rather than hand-picking their classes. But he kind of welds together two different ideas. This is the very strong claim:

By virtue of being the kind of students Harvard admits, people who go here already have a huge leg-up in life. A student admitted because of her preternatural brilliance would have been rewarded for that anyway. So, too, for a student with an extraordinary work ethic or an exceptional talent for the arts. Given that these students have so much going for them already, why should Harvard devote its resources to helping them even more?

This is why, as I’ve said on many occasions, people should not donate money to rich elite American colleges. Their students are the ones least in need of the resources your money can help provide. But Matthews’ specific proposal doesn’t really get at this issue:

High school seniors would apply to a single admissions body and list their school preferences in order. Schools would set a minimum SAT score and high school GPA so that they do not admit students who truly cannot handle the work, but, otherwise, schools are randomly matched with students who list them as a preference.

Harvard probably has enough sway to launch such a system, but barring that it should set its own minimum threshold and then randomly cull from that vast majority of applicants who meet it. William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, Harvard’s long-time dean of admissions and financial aid, has said that 80 to 90 percent of Harvard applicants are qualified to be here. Harvard should identify that 80 to 90 percent, and then randomly accept 1600–1700 of them.

A system like that would still maintain the backwards allocation of resources where the richest schools have the best students.


But I think even this weaker version of the proposal would have an important beneficial impact, namely it would make the sorting/selection factor of higher education much more transparent. If “I was smart enough to get into School X” was exactly equivalent to “I got blah blah score on my SAT and then won a lottery” then suddenly School X is under fairly intense pressure to show it’s delivering actually educational value. The United States currently spends a lot of money on higher education and young people spend a lot of time getting higher educated, and we’re reasonably sure there’s some value created by all this, but we have no idea how much and there’s almost no competitive pressure on schools to increase value. Randomizing admissions, even with a cut-off point, would change the game in this regard.