‘The Hunger Games’ and Higher Education

Catharine Bond Hill uses the novel and film to discuss the flaws of letting in students by lottery. A much broader approach is needed, she writes.

January 19, 2021

College admissions and financial aid professionals at America’s top schools are in the thick of reviewing another round of applications, with promises to make adjustments for students living through this pandemic. But even before the pandemic surfaced -- and in no small part fueled by exposure of the Varsity Blues admissions scandal -- the pressure was on to make admission to selective colleges and universities more equitable. Increasing representation of talented low- and middle-income students and underrepresented minorities at these name-brand institutions is critical. However, focusing on who gets in misses the most important point: we need to change not only the rules but the entire game.

Some have suggested using a lottery system for admission to selective colleges as one way to solve the equity issues. Those who have read or watched The Hunger Games -- and I highly recommend it to all admissions and financial aid professionals as well as higher education policy makers -- know that the lottery model is flawed. That model of a lottery not only demonstrates how equity is hard to accomplish in this way, but more importantly how the competition itself may be the problem, not admission to the game. Pitting teens and grandmothers against trained warriors in a fight to the death based on pure chance seems far from equitable, but a fairer lottery would not address the problem of the game itself.

Now consider American higher education, where access to scarce seats has never been equitable. They have been rationed by both ability to pay and by investments on the part of families to prepare students for the admissions competition. For much of the 20th century, women and underrepresented minorities did not have access to many of the most selective colleges and universities. While progress has been made at improving equity in the competition for these increasingly coveted seats, a better option would be to level the playing field.

The quality of educational programs varies significantly, and these disparities have grown over the last several decades. The rising income inequality in our society is reflected in the unequal resources available to different colleges and universities and their students and has contributed to the fierce competition for seats at the best-resourced institutions. The amount of money spent on educating a student at a selective college -- as much as $100,000 a year -- far outstrips the investment made in a community college student, who may at best have $15,000 per year spent on their education. Plus, graduating from a selective college comes with access to a network of successful alumni. Even the full-pay students at these institutions receive a large subsidy, in the form of what a college spends on a student’s education in excess of the sticker price. Is that a fair competition?

If the quality of education and the amount of resources spent per student were less unequal across American higher education, then the competition for the top spots would be less intense and it wouldn’t matter so much who attends which college. Few defend the current unequal distribution of resources, with the exception perhaps of those institutions with the most resources. The inequality in available resources has resulted not from some rational allocation of scarce resources, but from a decentralized system of diverse types of institutions in diverse states, with different access to revenue streams that are more an accident of history than anything else. Even if one believes that some differences in spending per student are justifiable or unavoidable, it doesn’t mean that the increasing differences resulting from rising income inequality in America over the last 40 years -- itself not considered optimal by most people -- are justified.

Spoiler alert: at the end of The Hunger Games, the villains almost succeed in changing the lottery system so that a new set of children will compete and die. But the heroine, Katniss, understands that the game itself has to change. Rather than only addressing who wins the fierce competition for limited seats -- in the increasingly selective colleges and universities across the country -- we need to invest more across all of American higher education. We must reduce the relative prize of gaining access to one of these institutions rather than another. Investing in great options for a larger number of students is the winning outcome. More resources for community colleges and four-year public universities would help, as would increasing the enrollments at the currently well-resourced colleges and universities. Otherwise we’re just changing the rules. It’s time we play the heroine and change the game itself.

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Catharine Bond Hill is managing director of Ithaka S+R and former president of Vassar College.


Catharine Bond Hill

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