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A drawing of a faceless figure atop a ladder adding the top block to a vertical stack of alphabetical blocks that spell out "LUCK."

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I always love it when I find a new word or phrase that better captures a concept that I’ve been thinking about. I always hate it when it’s a word or phrase I wish I had been smart enough to come up with myself.

So it was several years ago when Akil Bello talked about colleges as being highly “rejective” rather than highly selective. That seems to me a spot-on way to express a guiding principle that drives admission for a certain group of colleges. At those places, rejectivity is not just descriptive but also aspirational. A worldview that sees college admission as only about prestige—that “the harder a college is to get in to, the better it must be”—is widely and uncritically accepted by the public and promulgated by the media and motivates colleges to strive to be rejective.

Just before Thanksgiving, I discovered a new term that appropriately captures another important concept. Jessi Streib, a sociologist at Duke University, recently wrote a book titled The Accidental Equalizer: How Luck Determines Pay After College. Her thesis is that for college graduates entering the job market, meritocracy gives way to what Streib refers to as the “luckocracy.”

I have been thinking about the concept of luckocracy, and I think it has application not only to the job search but also the college search. That is particularly true for students applying to colleges and universities where rejectivity is a strategic goal and a reality.

There is an ongoing debate within the college admissions world about whether the admission process is, or should be, a meritocracy. That debate encompasses a subdebate about whether merit is real, or merely a code word for privilege. Is meritocracy really “privilegeocracy”?

I think there is such a thing as merit. I’m not sure I can give a good definition, but like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart with regard to pornography, I know it when I see it. It is also the case, however, that many of the things identified as merit are either covertly or even overtly measures of privilege.

I wonder if we do students (and the public) a disservice when we talk about college admission being a meritocracy. In a meritocracy those who are unsuccessful may come to question their self-worth and merit, and in the selective/rejective admission process, there are far more students who possess merit and deserve admission than will actually receive admission offers. I worry about the messages we send those students.

I worry even more about those who are successful in the elite college admission process. I worry that they don’t feel gratitude for the opportunity they receive and empathy for their classmates who are not as fortunate but rather feel hubris and a sense of entitlement. They didn’t get in because they were fortunate or lucky, but because they were better, more meritorious. That message doesn’t serve them or our society well.

My very first article about college admission, published back in 1988, argued that selective admission is ultimately a problem in distributive justice, where the objective is to allocate a scarce resource fairly. My solution was a form of random selection among those applicants deemed qualified for admission.

The response was interesting. Some thought it must be satire, the college admission equivalent of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Others were incensed that I dared suggest that the ability to sculpt or engineer a class should be removed from admissions offices. I was told by admission friends that my name was being taken in vain in admissions offices across the country.

The most interesting response, however, came from students applying to the Ivies and other highly rejective colleges and universities. They opposed the use of random selection because they didn’t want to gain admission through a lottery, through luck, but rather wanted to believe that they were admitted because they were better than those not admitted.

The idea of college admission as a meritocracy encourages that sense of superiority. That’s where the concept of luckocracy comes in. Thinking of selective admission as a luckocracy promotes humility, an appreciation that we may not get what we deserve, not that we deserve what we get.

One of the central principles of ethics is that individuals shouldn’t be held morally responsible for things over which they have no control. You don’t choose the color of your hair or the color of your skin, so you shouldn’t be rewarded or penalized for those. None of us are responsible for the family or country we are born in. That is a matter of luck, not merit. Many of the components of any individual’s success in the college admissions process have a strong correlation to the circumstances of one’s birth. Luckocracy recognizes that front and center. Meritocracy does not.

It is important to recognize that meritocracy and luckocracy are concepts that can co-exist. Any individual’s success in life is a function of merit and drive, but also of luck and good fortune.

As we head into the season of helping our students deal with early-decision and early-action results, I hope we can find the appropriate balance between merit and luck. Whether they want to hear it or not, students and parents need to understand that admission may be a meritocracy, but it is definitely a luckocracy.

Jim Jump recently semiretired after 33 years as the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He previously served as an admissions officer, philosophy instructor and women’s basketball coach at the college level and is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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