Some Brown University mathematics professors were confused and dismayed this month to learn that the university planned to admit 20 percent of its next freshman class completely at random -- by putting names in a hat and drawing them out.
The Brown professors were reacting to an e-mail message they received from a colleague reporting on his work on the university's Admissions Advisory Committee. Complete with the sort of verbiage and citations one might expect in a report from an august institutional panel, the memo outlined the reasons Brown was going to "merit-blind admissions" and the comparable actions of peer institutions. Naturally, professors reacted to this memo, with some expressing concern about random admissions. Had they followed a link provided in the memo,  they would have realized that there was no cause for concern. However irrational many people find elite private college admissions, it isn't in fact being replaced with drawing names out of a hat.
Richard Schwartz, the Brown mathematics professor who sent the e-mail, isn't exactly stuffy -- his CV  includes not only his postdoc and his various fellowships, but his high school job making sandwiches at Subway. So perhaps his colleagues should have been more suspicious than some were, especially given that they received the e-mail at the beginning of this month. But as The Brown Daily Herald reported this week, several professors engaged in serious critiques of the new policy. Schwartz agreed to share his original e-mail and the responses with Inside Higher Ed, but out of respect to his colleagues, he removed their names from the responses.
In Schwartz's memo, he starts by noting frustrations (shared in fact by many in higher education) of the lack of correlation between SAT scores and college performance. But he goes on to say that at Brown, studies could not find much of a correlation between high school grades and college performance, either.
Brown's committee -- the memo said -- learned that other prestigious universities were similarly frustrated and were starting a new approach to admissions. Schwartz then went on to describe "a really unsettling idea" being tried at Harvard, which he characterized as a "random admission policy." Schwartz reported: "Over the past 2 years, Harvard admitted 3% of their students based on an essentially random process -- subject to a certain minimum level of perceived quality. This is to say that they randomly gave some 'decent but not great seeming' applicants a chance, but obviously did not take people with prison records." According to the memo, Harvard was so pleased with the program that it was going to use it on 6 percent of its class next year, and Princeton had recently upped Harvard by announcing a "10% random admit" policy.
Schwartz quoted a Princeton administrator as saying: "In the absence of any other good criterion, it seems fair to give the benevolent hand of chance a greater role in guiding the future of higher education."
After citing the actions of other Ivies, Schwartz reported on Brown's plans -- endorsed by the president and provost -- to go to 20 percent random admissions by 2011. "To put this starkly, all the applications will be put into a hat and the first 300 new admits to Brown will be drawn at random."
Schwartz received several e-mail messages from colleagues with technical questions about the alleged Brown plan, as well as reasoned analysis on why random admissions might be better with a smaller share of the class. When Schwartz drew his colleagues' attention to the place where he revealed his spoof, at least one person -- Schwartz said -- expressed support for random admissions, even if the other Ivies had yet to experiment with it.
The full Schwartz memo follows, reprinted here with his permission.
As some of you know, I am a member of Brown's Admissions Advisory Committee (AAC). The AACadvises the university about long-term issues having to do with admissions. Basically, our job is to study the relationships between admission policies and student performance, and then to make recommendations based on our findings. I am writing to you to solicit your feedback on one of the recommendations made by the committee. I don't want to sway your opinion in advance, but I have to say that I have STRONG reservations about this one recommendation.
As you might know, there is not such a great correlation between students' performance on standardized tests (e.g. SAT) and their performance at Brown. Indeed, this semester I made an informal study of the 60 or so students in my Math 20 course, comparing their math SAT scores with their class performance. I noticed that there was hardly any correlation at all. Perhaps my study was not statistically significant, but it was consistent with similar findings across a broad spectrum of freshman-level courses. (Mainly I did my little study as a sanity-check.)
Somewhat more surprising is that students' high school grades also do not seem to be well-correlated to their performance in freshman-level courses. We did a rather extensive latitudinal study of this, andfound in general little or no correlation between high school grades and performance at Brown. I should probably say one basic difficulty in this study is that most students did extremely well in high school and so the variance in high school grades was small. It is perhaps better to say that the excellent high school grades of our students did not translate into similar grades at Brown.
What we found really quite surprising is that the students here whom we call "academic elites" - those students with multiple 5's on AP exams, extensive prior college credit, awards from science competitions, experience in special enrichment programs, etc. really did not do much better, on average, than the students admitted to Brown for reasons other than academic. When we compared these students side by side, we hardly found any difference at all!
Overall, there seems to be little correlation at all between what we see on the student applications and what we see once the students are here. It seems that the applications are so carefully padded and polished that we can't tell the good from the bad.
Our committee is not the first to notice these trends. An extensive study was done at Harvard severalyears ago, with similar findings. As a result of this study, Harvard has been experimenting with a really unsettling idea -- a kind of "random admission policy". Over the past 2 years, Harvard admitted 3% of their students based on an essentially random process -- subject to a certain minimum level of perceived quality. This is to say that they randomly gave some "decent but not great seeming" applicants a chance, but obviously did not take people with prison records.
Harvard's pilot program has worked extremely well, contrary to most expectations. Next year, Harvard will broaden the program to "6% random" and Princeton and Columbia will follow suit. Indeed, Princeton will have a "10% random admit" policy for the 2010 academic year. This radical policy was derided recently in the press as "merit-blind admissions", but for various reasons these elite institutions are extremely serious and enthusiastic about it. One Princeton administrator said, "In the absence of any other good criterion, it seems fair to give the benevolent hand of chance a greater role in guiding the future of higher education."
In my opinion, Brown sometimes acts against its better judgment when attempting to follow (or out-do) some of its higher-profile Ivy League sisters. Accordingly, our committee has recommended that we move to a 20% random admission's policy by 2011. To put this starkly, all the applications will be put into a hat and the first 300 new admits to Brown will be drawn at random. Both President Simmons andProvost Kertzer have enthusiastically (and publicly) embraced this recommended new policy. I would welcome any comments you have on these developments. If you want additional information about our findings and recommendations, please go to www.math.brown.edu/~res/ap1.html