School & District Management Opinion

Casting Lots for College?

By Rebecca Zwick — December 17, 2007 3 min read
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With college-application deadlines looming, high schoolers across the land are frenetically preparing for one more shot at the SAT, agonizing over personal essays, or wrestling with financial-aid forms. And while wealthy applicants hire pricey tutors and admissions consultants to help with the process, many low-income candidates and students of color despair of capturing a seat in the freshman class. Surely, there must be a better way.

Recently, the University of California, Berkeley, sociologist Jerome Karabel proposed in a commentary in The New York Times an alternative pathway to top-ranked colleges: a lottery. Karabel suggests that this approach, which would involve randomly choosing among applicants who met a “high academic threshold,” could help counter an admissions system that consistently privileges the privileged.

An admissions lottery may seem appealing at first blush because it provides equal access. But random selection does not automatically imply fairness.

Lottery admissions procedures in higher education have been considered repeatedly over the last four decades, and there are now both research findings and real-life experiments that can inform us about the results. First, a lottery with a threshold, such as that proposed by Jerome Karabel, is unlikely to benefit low-income candidates and students of color. Second, although random selection may seem equitable in the abstract, it tends not to be regarded as fair in practice.

A college-admissions lottery was evidently first proposed in a 1969 letter to the editor of Science by the education scholar Alexander Astin, who suggested that a lottery could serve to increase the enrollment of minority students. “In the interests of putting the concept of ‘equality of educational opportunity’ into practice,” he said, colleges “might want to consider abandoning altogether the use of grades and tests in admissions, and instituting instead a lottery system. …”

A lottery-with-threshold was suggested by the University of California, Davis, professor Norman Matloff in a 1995 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece. Essentially, Matloff’s rationale for this policy, which he proposed for use at the University of California, was that applicants above the threshold could be regarded as having equal claims to the resource in question—a college education. The lottery-with-threshold idea has been widely promoted by the Harvard University law professor Lani Guinier, who advocates this approach as a means of increasing the representation of people of color on college campuses. A prominent critic of admissions tests, she recommends a lottery for applicants who exceed a threshold based (oddly enough) on admissions-test scores.

Would a lottery with an SAT-score threshold increase the representation of low-income and minority applicants, who tend to score lower on admissions tests? A recent analysis by political scientists Bernard Grofman and Samuel Merrill showed that it was not possible to find a threshold that was high enough to make the “equal claims” argument plausible, and yet low enough to yield a substantial improvement in the representation of lower-scoring groups. They gave an illustration showing that “a lottery-based system with a realistic minimum threshold will result in only a minuscule rate of minority acceptance compared to that of whites.”

A similar conclusion was reached by the economists Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose in a recent study based on data from 146 top U.S. universities. These researchers also found that, because of the reduction in the academic qualifications of admitted students, a lottery-with-threshold “would likely result in dramatically reduced graduation rates or lowered standards. …”

We as a society need to do the hard work of crafting admissions policies that are consistent with our ethical and educational principles.

What about public reaction to lottery admissions? According to a College Board report, the lottery approach “was experimented with several decades ago,” but abandoned when highly qualified applicants were rejected, while weaker applicants from the same high school were accepted. A medical school lottery in the Netherlands was decried by citizens there as “immoral” and was curtailed in 2000 after a public protest. And a nationwide survey of 2,100 adults conducted in 1999 found that 83 percent rejected the idea of lottery-based college admissions.

A college-admissions lottery may seem appealing at first blush because it provides equal access—at least for a certain group of candidates. But random selection does not automatically imply fairness. The decision to treat all individuals—or individuals “above a threshold”—as interchangeable requires justification, just as any other selection principle does. And dissatisfaction with the status quo is not an adequate justification.

We as a society need to do the hard work of crafting admissions policies that are consistent with our ethical and educational principles. We can do better than casting lots.


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