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This spring, many secondary school students learned if they had been admitted to the country’s most competitive colleges. At Cornell University, where I’ve been a faculty member and observed admissions panels, just 8.7 percent of total applicants are accepted. The other Ivies and Stanford University accept even a smaller percentage.
The college application process has long been scrutinized for its fairness, particularly around alleged racial quotas, as demonstrated by a case against Harvard University now on the Supreme Court’s docket. Now many elite colleges no longer require the SATs, making the process of determining qualification even less cut-and-dried. But at the most competitive colleges, where administrators are seeking a diverse class of brilliant, well-adjusted students, whose later accomplishments will bring luster to their alma mater, the very question of how to fairly determine who is fit for admission has become muddled.
With the Ivies receiving an overwhelming number of applicants—in Cornell’s case for the Class of 2025, over 67,000—can we have confidence that all candidates are given the fair assessment they deserve? When I was writing my book How to Succeed in College and Beyond: The Art of Learning, I would observe the admissions process for a few hours a week over the course of a number of years. While the admission officers were well-intentioned, they convinced themselves that they were making subtle and informed distinctions among applicants, often within a few minutes or less, when in fact they were making arbitrary decisions based on tiny if any distinctions.
Given that the admission process at elite universities already has a strong speculative if not at times capricious component, wouldn’t it be fairer to dedicate some of the admission process to an actual lottery?
After accepting those who have demonstrated extraordinary talent and after turning down those who are clearly not viable applicants, competitive colleges should select a significant percentage of their applicant pool by lottery. To ensure racial, social and economic diversity in the entering class, there could be additional separate lotteries, including ones for underrepresented minorities, for first-generation college applicants and for those from economically disadvantaged families.
The idea of a lottery has been floated before. Those in the admissions industry—mostly idealistic people passionately committed to diversity—contend that the current method is fair and a lottery system might not hold up in court. We have no idea what the Supreme Court would say about a lottery or multiple lotteries—or who will be on the court—when the case arrives years later, if it does.
Admissions people with whom I have spoken turn a blind eye to the many ways in which college admissions is deeply flawed. I have seen students rejected because of a typo or because their applications were not perfectly neat. Alumni interviews once supplemented interviews at the colleges by admissions staff but now take their place; often these interviews reveal as much about the graduate’s personality and character as those of the student.
While many applicants come from modest economic backgrounds, well-to-do applicants have an unfair advantage. In the current system, the entire application process favors students who have had their essays reviewed and perhaps written not just by engaged parents, but often by paid professionals or guidance counselors with experience in presenting students to elite schools. Because of these parents’ familiarity with the process, it is not an overstatement to say that in many cases it is the parents who are the ones actually applying.
Finally, those who do get admitted to the most competitive colleges rarely see themselves fortunate to be born into favorable circumstances, but rather as hard workers with exceptional cognitive skills who deserved their acceptance. While they and their families assume that they have found their rightful place in the American meritocracy, we know how social and economic inequality has disadvantaged so many and how difficult it is for those to surmount their circumstances. To change the admissions system partially towards a lottery would give these young adults—both advantaged and disadvantaged—an important lesson in life about how success is not only forged from hard work, but a good degree of luck mixed in as well.