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Students will soon be receiving word from their chosen colleges and universities, but as more students apply to more colleges than ever before, the joy of acceptance or the agony of rejection are increasingly random. It's time to stop treating the college admissions process as we have in the past, and start treating it as it's become: a lottery.
A friend of mine worked for two different college admissions departments. The first was a traditional liberal arts college in the Northeast, an institution that prided itself on the character of its class. Admissions officers there more or less knew the high schools of applicants, had time to read the students' personal statements and letters of recommendation, and truly thought about whether the applicants would be a good fit for this particular institution. It was a relatively sane process.
Mainly because of the sheer size of the applicant pool, my friend's second institution operated differently. This competitive institution in the greater Washington area relied much more heavily on the all-important numbers -- high school grade point average and SAT score -- rather than some holistic determination of student quality.
Each year, thousands of qualified applicants bombarded the admissions office, and, even after setting a relatively high standard, the admissions office had far too many qualified applicants to choose from, and very little time to do so. During admissions season, each officer was expected to sort through 50 distinct applications per day, five days a week. At eight hours a day, not counting breaks, meetings, visitors, and phone calls, the admissions officer had roughly 10 minutes to devote to each applicant (eight hours a day times 60 minutes per hour divided by 50 applicants). Ten minutes, unless, as my friend points out, they were athletes or legacies.
At many institutions, in other words, it is a far more random process than colleges would like students to believe. The myth of a meritocracy, on which the selective admissions system is built, is substantially a lie.
Selective colleges did not mean for this to happen; rather, they are victims of their own success, along with the emergence of a truly national higher education market and the rise of a rankings-driven consumer culture. But, there is no going back now, so colleges should embrace the unavoidable randomness and go from a lottery-like system to a true lottery.
Institutions would set a threshold based on high school grades and SAT score and then open the lottery to anyone meeting those levels. A public university might have one lottery for state residents, after determining how many slots they should receive, and fill remaining spots with another lottery for out-of-state students. Everyone would have an equal chance of gaining admission, and the process wouldn't be subject to influences from money, alumni, or human error. Students who submit scores would be eligible for admission to institutions without going through the tedious and expensive process of writing essays, asking for recommendations, and paying separate application fees to each institution. They'd pay one fee to be a part of the lottery. Institutions would save on the cost of operating admissions offices that would be better invested in scholarships or teaching.
There are several examples of lotteries operating successfully in other fields. The system of placing medical students in residency programs is a good example of a large, higher education-created lottery. An objective third party inputs preferences from residency programs and prospective students, and then conducts a fair, impartial matching process to fill seats. Successful lotteries vary in the level of control afforded participating parties, but they require some minimal standards, an ability to receive preferences from each party, and then an objective system to match the two sides.
A lottery would increase opportunity for students who lack social connections, and a lottery would make it impossible for colleges to favor candidates unlikely to need financial aid over those who do. It would also reduce the perceived stigma of non-acceptance, and thus the terrible pressure that many high school students face. It would create an objective baseline for each institution, end the pretension that college admissions are non-random, and focus institutional missions back where they belong: teaching and preparing students to be productive members of society.
College admissions are already random; let's just admit it and begin developing a more effective system. A lottery might be the answer.