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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

7 Questions About an Elite College Admissions Lottery

By Rick Hess — March 20, 2019 2 min read
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Last week’s college admissions scandal occasioned endless commentary, with most it of seemingly focused on all the problems with America that it illuminated. I had a somewhat different take. As I argued over at Forbes:

This isn't an indictment of America but of the elite college cartel and the pathologies that it has enabled and exploited. It's an indictment of the way elite colleges sell fast-passes to lucrative jobs on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, of the manufactured scarcity that they have cultivated, and of the way they have avidly marketed that scarcity. When colleges sell access, or are so inept that they make it easy for the rich to buy access, this . . . is an indictment of elite colleges. If admissions offices cannot detect even rudimentary corruption and institutions can't stop themselves from selling access, it raises the question of whether we can trust them to make subtle distinctions when it comes to sensitive issues like race and merit.

Given that, I offered a modest proposal:

Maybe elite colleges should put their money where their mouth is when they pontificate about the need to democratize opportunity, take a page out of the K-12 charter school book, and switch to lottery admissions. Lottery admissions would help dissolve the relationship between where people went to school, how talented they're presumed to be, and where they would ultimately work. Students, of course, would still be free to apply to the campuses that they find the most attractive and most convenient. Faculty at elite colleges would still do their research, teaching, and mentoring, just with a less curated (and self-impressed) student body. Obviously, all this would only affect a sliver of American higher education, in any event, since most colleges aren't selective.

Readers seemed, in turn, tickled, intrigued, and appalled. There was a larger-than-usual number of queries and challenges. And, since I long ago abandoned any pretense of responding to comments, tweets, and the ubiquitous trolling that make up contemporary “discourse,” I figured I’d take a moment to answer some of the frequently asked questions. Here we go:

Q: But wouldn’t this be a huge blow to the prestige of elite schools and to the hiring routines of corporate HR departments?

A: Yes.

Q: But wouldn’t this just make testing that much more important?

A: No. Colleges could simply waive entrance tests, as so many have already been cheered for doing. If students have a high school diploma, they’d be free to stick their name in the lottery.

Q: Wouldn’t that be devastating for staff at the ACT, the College Board, the college prep industry, and admissions offices at elite colleges?

A: Yes.

Q: But might this all lead to the wrong sorts of students getting into elite colleges and not completing their degrees?

A: Well, I guess that depends on how much faith you have in admissions offices to fairly pick the “right” students, even when college staff aren’t complicit in or blind to felonious conduct. In any event, elite college administrators and lobbyists routinely brag about the remarkable job they do of helping students complete on time—I’m sure even the “wrong” high school grads would benefit from their exquisite skills and services, no?

Q: Who will turn high schoolers’ lives into numerical scores, decide which soulful application essays are the most soulful, and keep out those riff-raff applicants who have the wrong attitudes about gun control or Trump?

A: Umm. No one?

Q: What if the lottery results leave out many talented students a college would like to enroll?

A: Colleges are free to expand their student bodies. Heck, they can admit everyone who’d like to go. That might further dilute their manicured prestige, force them to spend endowment dollars to buy land and erect buildings, require the hiring of many new faculty, and such. It’d be inconvenient. But such is life.

Q: But what about money? If they can’t shake down affluent parents, might these colleges start giving out less aid? Or what if they start charging even more, just to scare off low-income students?

A: Here’s a chance for America’s finger-wagging, socially conscious college administrators to show their mettle. For starters, doing away with the admissions process means they can eliminate their application fee. Then, colleges should pledge to offer need-blind financial aid, protect students by providing grants rather than loans, and freeze tuition. This may all require some belt-tightening by administrators and staff, of course, but the right thing isn’t always the easy thing.

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