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Princeton University

Admission to Ivy League universities has been compared to winning the lottery. What if that was the case literally as well as figuratively?

That is the premise behind an op-ed published in The New York Times just before Christmas. The piece, written by Times columnist and critic Ginia Bellafante, carries the catchy title “Should Ivy League Schools Randomly Select Students (At Least for a Little While)?”

Bellafante’s column is one of a number of recent commentaries that have questioned how the pandemic will influence the college admissions process for this and coming admission cycles. Her hypothesis is that the pandemic has “only intensified inequalities in an education system that has relentlessly favored the well-off and aggressively prepared.”

Her use of the phrase “well-off and aggressively prepared” refers to applicants, but many of us have wondered if the pandemic will widen the chasm between rich and poor not only among applicants but also among institutions. The early numbers would seem to support that.

Over the past couple of months, there has been concern about declines in both the numbers of students submitting applications through the Common Application and also completing the FAFSA. Those declines seem to be more pronounced among first-generation applicants, those eligible for fee waivers and those attending high schools with a large percentage of low-income students.

On the institutional side, Bellafante’s column appeared on the same day that The Wall Street Journal reported that early-decision and restrictive early-action applications at the Ivies have “skyrocketed” this fall. Harvard University saw a 57 percent increase, Columbia University 49 percent, and the smallest increases (22 to 23 percent) were at Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania. Of course we are less likely to see the WSJ or other mainstream publications publish stories about the many lesser-known but reputable colleges and universities that are struggling to keep their heads, and their enrollments, above water. Just last week, though, The New York Times ran an article on the financial impact of COVID-19 on Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

The higher early Ivy numbers may be linked to the decline in the role that test scores are playing in the current admissions landscape. The loss of test dates and test centers has meant that many students have been able to take the SAT or ACT just once or not at all, and as a result the great majority of colleges and universities have adopted test-optional admission policies this year. But has the absence of test scores emboldened students to take shots at places they might not have considered had test scores been required?

Bellafante suggests that the absence of test scores will hurt students who attend high schools that are not known quantities for admission offices, that colleges will play it safe by admitting students from schools and programs that are safe and familiar. Embedded in that argument is an assumption that a number of critics of testing have called into question, which is that test scores help identify students that are “hidden gems.”

Her proposed solution is for the nation’s top private colleges and universities to undergo a “radical rethinking of admissions” to respond to the injustices, both economic and personal, perpetrated by the pandemic. She argues from a DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) lens that elite colleges should expand their reach and influence by admitting a broader spectrum of students, but she also recognizes that there is a fundamental contradiction in a commitment to DEI in an industry where success and prestige are determined by how many applicants are turned away.

Bellafante’s specific proposal is that the Ivies and similar institutions admit students by lottery, at least for the short term. The use of random selection or a lottery is an idea that raises its head in college admission every so often.

I have raised it myself. More than 30 years ago, my very first published article on college admission was in The Chronicle of Higher Education at a time when it published just one opinion piece each week on its back page. I argued that selective admission is an example of distributive justice, a type of ethical dilemma where the challenge is to distribute a scarce good or service fairly. I further suggested that admission officers should focus on determining who is qualified for admission rather than who is most qualified for admission, and that the class should be admitted randomly from among those determined to be qualified.

It is an understatement to say that the article was not received well. There were generally two reactions. On one hand I received reports that my name was taken in vain in some admission offices, and on the other there were people who were convinced that my suggestion was a joke, a college admissions version of Jonathan Swift’s “modest proposal” to turn poor and starving children into food.

Bellafante’s advocacy for a lottery goes beyond what I or anyone else have proposed. She argues not only that universities admit by lottery from among superbly qualified applicants, but that institutions be more forgiving in their definition of “qualified,” stating, “A revolution in the name of fairness would seem to require, at the minimum, the abandonment of perfection as a baseline.”

There are a couple of really interesting questions embedded in Bellafante’s argument. The first is what is the goal of the admissions process. Should it reward past performance or predict future accomplishment? Or, as Bellafante seems to suggest, should admission be offered to those who will most benefit from the opportunity, whose lives will be transformed?

The practical answer, of course, is “none of the above.” The admissions process as it exists today is first and foremost about achieving strategic institutional goals. I would love to see an “elite” institution conduct an experiment and admit its class through a lottery for even a single year, whether from a pool as broad as that suggested by Bellafante or one more narrow. But it is unlikely to happen because it would mean a loss of institutional control, with admissions officers no longer able to craft or sculpt the class. What would happen if a lottery resulted in a dramatic drop in diversity or legacy and athlete admits?

The bigger issue is whether merit and fairness are mutually exclusive concepts. Can merit and justice co-exist? I want to believe they can. I continue to believe in meritocracy as an ideal, but I also recognize that “merit” is hard to define. There are lots of examples of merit that are thinly disguised descriptions of privilege.

When I wrote my article arguing for the use of random selection in elective admission, there was a third reaction that I didn’t expect. It came from students who wanted to believe that their admission to an Ivy League university was because they were superior, intellectually and perhaps morally, to those not as fortunate. They wanted to be the college admission version of John Calvin’s “elect,” and they didn’t want luck to play any part in their admission.

That’s exactly why the Ivy League lottery proposed by Bellafante would be a good thing. A number of years ago, I heard a presentation from Nando Parrado, one of the survivors of the 1972 plane crash in the Andes Mountains involving a Uruguayan rugby team. After two months without rescue, Parrado and a teammate climbed a 15,000-foot mountain without gear and hiked across Chile for 10 days before finding help.

Parrado insists that he is in no way a hero. He lost his mother, sister and best friend in the crash, and he talked about the role that serendipity or happenstance played in his survival, noting that he would have died in the crash if he had sat one row ahead.

Admission to an elite college signifies being deserving and meritorious, but it also signifies being fortunate. We need to make sure that those admitted are as focused on the second as they are on the first.

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