Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

Casting Lots for College?

By Rebecca Zwick — December 17, 2007 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Quiz What Do You Know About the Most Influential People in School Districts? Take Our Quiz
Answer 7 questions about the superintendent profession.
1 min read
Image of icons for gender, pay, demographics.
Canva
School & District Management Opinion I Invited My Students to Be the Principal for a Day. Here’s What I Learned
When I felt myself slipping into a springtime slump, this simple activity reminded me of my “why” as an educator.
S. Kambar Khoshaba
4 min read
052024 OPINION Khoshaba PRINCIPAL end the year with positivity
E+/Getty + Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management The Complicated Fight Over Four-Day School Weeks
Missouri lawmakers want to encourage large districts to maintain five-day weeks—even as four-day weeks grow more popular.
7 min read
Calendar 4 day week
iStock/Getty
School & District Management From Our Research Center Principal Salaries: The Gap Between Expectation and Reality
Exclusive survey data indicate a gap between the expectations and the realities of principal pay.
4 min read
A Black woman is standing on a ladder and looking into the distance with binoculars, in the background is an ascending arrow.
iStock/Getty