Do College Admissions by Lottery

The current scandal involving fraud, bribery, and misrepresentation in the service of admissions to highly selective colleges and universities is astonishing, even to people who have long suspected that selective institutions exacerbate inequality rather than ameliorate it. We can fire corrupt coaches and admissions officers and penalize misguided parents, but these moves will barely scratch the surface of the problem. They won’t prevent parents from legally spending tens of thousands of dollars on S.A.T. prep courses, essay editors, and application “sculptors” in the service of giving their precious children a leg up on the zero-sum college competition. I fear that to cut the rot out of college admissions, something more radical must be done. But what?

I offered a proposal in the Chronicle of Higher Education fifteen years ago. Admission to highly selective institutions should be done by lottery. Every selective school should establish criteria that students would have to meet to have a high likelihood of being successful. Then, the names of all applicants who meet these criteria would be put into a hat and the winners would be drawn at random. Stanford, for example, rejects about 95 percent of its applicants. Given the self-selection that surely occurs in college applications, I would bet that half of those applicants would do fine at Stanford. My proposal is that all those qualified students be given an equal chance of admission to Stanford. Perhaps parents would be less inclined to have others take their kids’ exams and write their essays, or hire photographers to take pictures of their kids playing water polo or rowing boats if all that these moves would accomplish is a one in ten chance to get into Stanford.

To work, the lottery has to be conducted without exceptions; that is, no one is guaranteed admission. It seems to me that this can mostly be done. The obvious exception is big money athletics, largely men’s football and basketball. The fact that universities actually enroll unpaid professional athletes who pretend to be students is its own problem, best left for another day. I fear that my lottery would have to give certain categories of athletes a pass.

The degree of uncertainty in selection makes it impossible to know which excellent student will be better than which other excellent student.

The lottery may seem like a crazy idea, but it isn’t. Many years ago, the social scientists Detlof von Winterfeldt and Ward Edwards articulated what they called “the principle of the flat maximum.” The principle asserts that in many situations involving uncertainty—and college choice is certainly such a situation—the likely outcomes of many selections are essentially equivalent. Or, to put it differently, the degree of uncertainty in selection makes it impossible to know which excellent student will be better than which other excellent student. In other words, admission to selective colleges already is a lottery, though people pretend that it isn’t.

What would this lottery system accomplish? A lottery system would relieve the pressure on students. Instead of being the “best,” they would only have to be “good enough”—and lucky. It would free students up to do the things they were really passionate about in high school, instead of doing what will make them look good. And it would enable colleges to be straight with the public about what they are currently doing.

The intense competition for admission to highly selective colleges and universities is destroying our kids. Psychologist Suniya Luthar has spent about twenty-five years studying and documenting the growth of dysfunction among upper-middle-class youth, the prime candidates for admission to selective colleges. Luthar has found that extreme substance abuse, clinical depression, eating disorders, and promiscuous sex are growing fast among these young people. By easing the pressure, a lottery may get teenagers to see the college admission letter as the starting line, not the finish line, which in turn will make them more engaged and enthusiastic—better students—when college begins.

And a lottery system may also have a significant side benefit. It may change the way we think about social justice. Most of us think that justice entails both that people deserve what they get, and that people get what they deserve. When we say that people should deserve what they get, we are saying that success in life should be meritocratic. It shouldn’t be who you know or how much you have that determines success, but what you know, and what you do. Is it true of Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and similar institutions that people deserve what they get? Notwithstanding the current scandal, and with a few other caveats, like legacy admissions, I think the answer to this question is yes. The careful screening that comes when you can admit less than ten percent of the already self-selected group who apply almost guarantees that the students admitted will merit admission.

What about people deserving what they get? Not so much. It is the fate of thousands of deserving teenagers applying to dozens of selective institutions that they will not get what they deserve. They are people who have done the right thing—“worked hard and played by the rules”—only to fail. But the problem is that this second standard of justice simply cannot be met. Not every high-achieving high-school senior can get into Harvard, Princeton, or Stanford. There is just not enough room at the top.  

Is it unjust that so many qualified students fail to get what they deserve? You bet. But what is a school to do? What ends up happening is that standards for admission keep ratcheting up, in an effort to be fair to applicants and at the same time keep these institutions from exploding in size. Under these conditions, what it means to “deserve” admission is no longer that you are an excellent student but that you are a more excellent student than the competition. And this escalation of admissions standards is what induces students, or their parents, to try to game the system, a process that has been trickling down, so that now, parents subject their toddlers to coaching for private-school interviews, and their nine-year-olds to test-preparation classes designed to get them into the best middle schools.

A lottery like this won’t correct the injustice that is inherent in a pyramidal system in which not everyone can rise to the top…But what it will do is reveal this injustice for what it is, instead of pretending otherwise.

The solution to this problem is an admissions lottery. If selective schools use a lottery, the pressure balloon that is engulfing high-school kids will be punctured. Instead of having to be better than anyone else, they will just have to be “good enough”—and lucky. Anyone who is good enough gets her name thrown into the hat and has the same chance of admission as anyone else with a name in the hat.

A lottery like this won’t correct the injustice that is inherent in a pyramidal system in which not everyone can rise to the top. Nothing will. But what it will do is reveal this injustice for what it is, instead of pretending otherwise. And arguably, it is more just than the current system.

And a lottery will have another benefit. It will acknowledge the role that luck plays in every success. Appreciating that you’ve been lucky may make you more empathetic when you consider the life circumstances of others. It may increase your inclination to reach out and help people who have not been as lucky as you. It may encourage you to work to make sure that even those who lose the academic lottery will still have a landing place that gives them a fine education. After all, it could be your kid who loses.

Sure, you deserve your success, but lots of other people also deserved success and didn’t have it. Justice is an important value when it comes to college admissions, but it isn’t the only important value. Other values that an admissions process might serve are the nurturing of empathy, community solidarity, care, compassion, and service to those whose dice came out snake eyes. Acknowledging the role of luck may actually help nurture those values in students and in their parents. And admitting to the role of luck may encourage the institutions themselves to be more explicit about the importance of those values. It may get them to care a little bit less about where they rank in the U.S. News guide to colleges, and a little bit more about where they rank when it comes to nurturing good citizens.

Disclosure: Barry Schwartz is a member of the Behavioral Scientist’s advisory board.

Illustrations by Sarah Lazarovic.