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College cheating scandal shows why elite colleges should use a lottery to admit students

U.S. Attorney for District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling announces indictments in a sweeping college admissions bribery scandal March 12. Steven Senne/AP

Many Americans are outraged by the college admission scandal revealed by the FBI earlier this year. The scandal involves celebrities and wealthy investors who allegedly bought their children’s way onto college sports teams and cheated to improve their children’s SAT and ACT scores. Of course, the regular college admissions system also favors the children of wealthy families when it comes to elite colleges.

As an expert on college admissions, I’d like to suggest a simple solution that would make the process more fair: an admissions lottery.

The lottery I envision would involve applicants who meet a certain academic threshold and help universities admit students in a more equitable way. An admissions lottery would accomplish two important goals.

1. Acknowledge the advantage for the wealthy

The most fair thing elite colleges can do is to acknowledge that selection inevitably favors those with resources. Indeed, the more selective colleges are, the more privileged the students admitted are.

An admission lottery would send a clear message that admission is significantly based on chance, not just merit. Even the extensive analyses by top economists both for and against Harvard in an affirmative action lawsuit against the school could not predict the admissions outcomes of one in four applicants.

In other words, even when you build a statistical model that includes everything from an applicant’s grades and SAT scores to their parents’ professions, what state they live in and many other factors, it’s hard to understand admission decisions. This suggests more chance is involved than most people think.

The current admissions process suggests to students who get into Harvard, Yale, the University of Southern California or other desirable schools that they deserved their spot exclusively on their own merits – that is, despite their parents’ wealth, whether their parents attended the school and any advantages stemming from the high schools they attended coming into play.

Actress Lori Loughlin, left, and actress Felicity Huffman are among dozens indicted in a sweeping college admissions bribery scandal. AP

But that is simply not the case. It is well established that those who get into elite schools come from wealthier, better-educated families than teens in the U.S. overall. They also tend to more frequently be white or Asian. So unless society believes that merit is not evenly distributed across the population, pretending that admissions is meritocratic makes it seem like elite students are more worthy than those who are disadvantaged, when the reality is they just had more advantages.

2. Save time and money

An admissions lottery would save universities incredible resources. For instance, at Harvard, a 40-person committee of full-time, paid admissions officers votes together on each of the tens of thousands of applicants to Harvard College.

If qualified students were entered into a lottery, the university could simply pick names out of an electronic “hat,” so to speak, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in hours of work. There could be similar savings for other universities as well.

A lottery would also save parents and teens countless hours of time and money and eliminate a lot of stress as they try to navigate an increasingly competitive admissions system. College admissions has led many high school students to strive toward ever-tougher standards of excellence in academics as well as extracurriculars. This leads to unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety for increasing numbers of teens.

I’m not suggesting that the application process be scrapped altogether. Instead, universities should carefully reflect on what qualities they seek in students. One reasonable quality would be a basic level of academic achievement, such that a student – with the supports available on campus – will be able to handle the academic expectations of the university.

In order to ensure all young people have a shot, these expectations and supports should accommodate top students from high schools around the country, including the neediest communities with the fewest resources. Selective colleges could commit to meeting the educational needs to top students from all high schools, regardless of those students’ SAT scores or other measures that compare them to peers from other, more resource-rich schools.

The first steps

Some colleges might be reluctant to be the first to adopt an admissions lottery. Those colleges should consider how colleges like Bates and Bowdoin became the first to go test-optional when it comes to the SAT, long before hundreds of other colleges did. Even so, these schools achieved greater diversity and kept their graduation rates about the same.

On the other hand, if lots of colleges were to switch to an admissions lottery, they together might develop a “match” system, similar to the system that places medical school students in their residency programs. Students would first be sorted into their first-choice colleges, and then the pool of those students who reach the eligibility bar would be entered into a lottery to select students. After the first choices are made, lotteries for second choices would happen, and so on. This system would also alleviate the cost to families associated with students applying to increasing numbers of colleges, which also drives up the cost of evaluating the applicants.

The struggle over college admissions has led to increasing costs, anxiety among American teens, and unfair perceptions of merit being the exclusive domain of elites. And, as the cheating scandal shows, it has led to corruption. These situations can be avoided if colleges take bold steps toward an admissions lottery.

Editor’s Note: This is an updated version of an article originally published on Jan. 8, 2019.

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