The Perpetual Debate -- Serious and Symbolic -- on Lotteries and Admissions

Professor’s article revives discussions on fairness and privilege.

July 24, 2017
 
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“Prof wants to ‘blow up meritocracy’ with ‘admissions lottery’” is the headline on an article on the conservative website Campus Reform. And the idea that a professor might want to eliminate merit in admissions is of course one that might scare many educators.

Beneath the headline, the article notes that the professor -- Joseph Soares, sociology chair at Wake Forest University -- isn't calling for a pure lottery. He is suggesting that elite colleges should use a lottery to allocate places among those who are in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. He argues in fact that such a system would value merit, in the form of the academic skill reflected in earning a spot in the top 10 percent. But he argues as well that efforts by elite college to distinguish among those in the top 10 percent (in part through the use of test scores) are unfair and favor wealthy, generally white students. He isn't arguing against meritocracy as much as what he calls a fake meritocracy.

Soares isn't the first to suggest a lottery for elite college admissions -- and in fact he was commenting on the idea as raised in a book published last year.

The lottery idea strikes many as silly. Last year's joke issue of The Daily Pennsylvanian featured a fake story about Penn adopting a lottery for admissions with “no disqualifying factors; no GPA or SAT minimum, no nothing.”

And while the idea of selecting students by lottery seems absurd to many in the higher ed context, it is in fact widely used in the K-12 context for admission to some charter schools. And some community colleges use a lottery as a factor in admitting applicants (those who already meet certain criteria) to programs for which there aren't enough slots.

So what did Soares write, and how does it fit into the debates over how elite colleges should admit students?

The article ran in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies. In it Soares stressed that those admitted to top colleges are in fact highly intelligent and worthy in all kinds of ways. Where he questioned the current system was in the idea that those admitted are somehow better than most of those rejected.

"Elite colleges uphold steep gradients of inequality, such as what the U.S. suffers from today, by perpetuating the myth of meritocracy. Harvard’s undergraduates are not just academically proficient and lucky, they are supposed to be 'the best of the best of the best.' We should give up that sociologically invalid meritocratic conceit and accept that from among the many who are qualified, and most of Harvard’s applicants are qualified, a few got lucky," Soares wrote. "They did not deserve it any more or less than everyone else qualified in the pool. There are measurable advantages, accumulated social and cultural capital privileges, to attending very selective colleges, and those advantages are unequally shared by whites and underrepresented minorities."

Soares noted that part of the way most elite colleges evaluate applicants is through test scores such as the SAT and ACT -- even though, on average, students who are wealthier earn higher scores than other students, and even though scores of black and Latino students, on average, lag those of white and Asian students.

"It is time to acknowledge that elite college advantages are not earned by our 'meritocracy,' and one very powerful way to teach America a lesson about randomness and life chances would be to pick our winners via a lottery drawn from the top 10 percent of each high school," he wrote. "If 'elite' colleges will not adopt a lottery system, at minimum they should drop their SAT/ACT requirements and move us beyond socially biased and predictively weak tests. SAT/ACT tests are wastes of time, energy and money; they distract from real learning."

Soares has been critical of the use of standardized testing for years. His 2007 book, The Power of Privilege (Stanford University Press), looked at the history of the use of test scores in college admissions and argued that they were initially intended to keep minority groups (at the time, Jews) out of higher education, not to promote meritocracy.

Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, has pushed the idea of a lottery in college admissions, attracting attention with pieces in 2015 in The New York Times and in 2012 in The Atlantic. (Like Soares and community colleges that use lotteries, he suggests instituting one for candidates who meet criteria to show they can succeed, not a complete lottery.)

Chad Aldeman, then with Education Sector and now at Bellwether Education Partners, endorsed the idea in a 2009 essay in Inside Higher Ed.

After Academic Medicine ran an article on the subject of implicit bias in admissions decisions, one psychiatrist wrote a letter to the editor arguing that the only way to prevent such bias would be a lottery among medical school applicants who meet certain criteria.

Many of those who advocate lotteries cite the unfairness of the admissions system, but others focus on randomness -- and the sense that there is no legitimate way for highly competitive colleges to truly sort applicants.

An essay in the Los Angeles Times by Ben Orlin discussed why he decided to stop serving as an alumni interviewer for Yale University. He argued that the current system is so random (and creates so much pressure) that a lottery might well be equally effective.

"In the last couple of decades, Yale's applicant pool has gone from hypercompetitive to a Darwinian dystopia so cutthroat you'd feel guilty even simulating it on a computer, just in case the simulations had emotions," Orlin wrote.

"With so many qualified students, top colleges don't -- as you might expect -- look for the very best," he added. "They don't even operate on a single, well-defined notion of what 'best' means. Instead, they go for balance. They're just trying to fill their campus with a diverse cohort of freshmen. Consistency and fairness -- whatever that would mean -- have nothing to do with it. It's like making trail mix. You don't care whether this particular peanut is more deserving than that particular chocolate chip. You're just choosing high-quality ingredients that go well together."

Almost all of these articles, like the one by Soares, generate criticism. Wouldn't a lottery admit unqualified students? If some cutoff on grades is used, wouldn't it reward those who attend high schools with grade inflation?

Soares said that he doesn't worry about the grade inflation issue. He notes that numerous studies have found that the single best way to predict college success is high school grades in college preparatory courses. (Testing companies don't dispute the value of high school grades, but say that they are a better predictor when combined with test scores.)

He said that, ultimately, what he and other lottery proponents are pushing is for honesty about applicants not being that distinguishable at the top level. And he said via email that this honesty might have another benefit. "If 'winners' are thought of as the lucky among the deserving, then perhaps our winner-take-all society would become more equitable and compassionate," he said.

 

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