Luck of the draw

To ease the intense competition to get into the “right” college, Barry Schwartz proposes an admissions lottery: Competitive universities would choose randomly among the large pool of qualified students. High school students would compete to be in the “good enough” group but wouldn’t burn out in the quest to be the very best.

There is probably a right answer to the questions “Whom should we admit?” or “Which college should I select?” But we won’t know until after the fact. Chance factors (roommate assignment, romantic successes or failures, or which English professor evaluates your first papers) might have a bigger effect on success and satisfaction than the tiny differences among applicants (or schools) within the range of acceptability. So once a set of “good enough” students or “good enough” schools has been identified, it probably doesn’t matter much which one you choose; or if it does matter, there is no way to know in advance what the right choice is.

College admission is a crapshoot, Schwartz writes. Why pretend admissions officers know who’s the best among so many very good applicants?

He suggests an experiment: Admit half the students through the normal admissions process at half through a lottery for the qualified. See how the students do in college.

A former Stanford admissions officer told me that some students are so outstanding they’re admitted at once; others clearly aren’t qualified. Most applicants end up in “the swim,” a large pool of excellent students who would do well if admitted. Choosing between them is arduous and arbitrary, he said. I believe his analogy was throwing darts at a board.

It’s hard to believe colleges would give up on admitting the superstars; they wouldn’t throw athletes or minority candidates into a lottery either. But for the “swim” applicants, random chance probably would work fine.

Schwartz sees another benefit in a college lottery: It would show the role of luck.

If talented and hardworking people are forced to confront the element of chance in life’s outcomes when they (or their kids) fail to get into the “best” college, they may be more inclined to acknowledge the role of luck in shaping the lives of the people around them. And this may make them more empathic toward others — and a good deal more committed to creating more room at the top.

I’m not sure if I buy into this. The top is bigger than status-conscious parents think. Students who lose the lottery at the “best” colleges will get into a good-enough college. They won’t be losers.

The truly unlucky are out of the elite college game before they start high school. They go to schools with low expectations. Their parents don’t push them to achieve academically or don’t know how to help them cope with problems. Some hard-luck students go to non-elite colleges and succeed, but they’re not the ones agonizing over getting into Swarthmore or Stanford.

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  1. Mark Roulo says:

    Won’t a lottery just encourage these students to
    apply to even *MORE* schools? If I know that I have a
    10% chance to get accepted to Harvard and a 10% chance
    to get accepted to Yale (independent 10% chances, of
    course!) and a 10% chance to get accepted to …

    the obvious solution is to apply to a *lot* of schools.

    In fact, with a 10% acceptance, if I apply to 10 schools,
    I still have a 1-in-3 chance of getting accepted to none.

    10% is low right now, but I’d expect a lot more applications
    per school once it becomes clear that it *IS* a lottery.

    I don’t want to have to have kids apply to 40+ schools just
    to be fairly certain that they get in somewhere.

    -Mark Roulo

  2. Half Canadian says:

    This takes the position that the student is there for the school. In fact, the school is there for the student. This proposed method would not encourage students to work hard.

  3. greifer says:

    the proposed method also fails to understand that schools would lose their cachet this way. once it’s clear that it doesn’t really matter who they take, it’s also clear that then it doesn’t really matter where you go. right now, kids want to go to Yale or MIT or Reed because of the propemsity to be around certain types of people. but the randomness undercuts the argument (whether it was ever true is irrelevant) that there’s anything unique about the student body. then why bother trying hard to get in anywhere? there’s no value in Brown or Skidmore. might as well not bother to go anywhere hard.

  4. I just had a marvelous former student not get into ANY of the insanely selective schools to which he applied, while his buddy who had fewer accolades got into a very chichi Ivy. It really is a crapshoot. He is a great student, a very facile writer, and now we are going into Plan B.

    He didn’t listen when I talked in class about making sure you don’t just go for cachet, but now he’s taking a different tack, and we are all trying to help him see the gems he overlooked– places where he will excel and be happy. It’s tough.

  5. Dan Rosenfield says:

    As a veteran enrollment magager and publisher of a college and scholarship information website I am concerned about some of the trends in college admission, but the fact is that a relatively small percentage of colleges deny more students than they admit. Unfortunately, the press focuses on the most highly selective colleges, leading folks to believe the whole system is broken. In fact, more than two thirds of college freshmen report they are attending their first choice college.

    As flawed as the process may be, and as arbitrary as some of the top colleges may appear to be in admitting students, their efforts certainly result in a better match between students and colleges than would a lottery.

  6. Several things:

    1. Students who lose the lottery at the “best” colleges will get into a good-enough college. They won’t be losers. (a) The “best” college for Ms. X would be a disaster for Mr. Y, and vice-versa. We could posit 101 reasons why. (b) False dichotomy — the “best” & “good-enough”. As in, is there one dimension of “best”?

    2. I feel like I should be running the Great Parents of High School Sophomores Re-Education Camp. Topic One: Get Over Your Need To Have Your Kid At A Name Brand School That Will Impress Your Friends. Topic Two: Find the School That Fits Your Kid. Topic Three: Be Realistic About Your Kid’s High-School Performance. Topic Four: Be Realistic — Will Your Kid Learn More/Perform Better if He is In the Top 10% of Given College’s Admittees? Top 25%? Second 10%? Second 25% (ie, is he a coaster or a striver?)

    3. There’s no way to do this, but: somehow limit the number of schools a kid applies to. Since I’m a Californian, I count applying to the entire UC system as one application. The CSU system counts as a second application. I don’t see any reason for a child to apply to more than 6 (10 if I am feeling generous). While we were on the Grand College Tour in 2006, I heard one admissions officer report 33 unique schools from one applicant, and 25 unique schools for another.

  7. “Topic One: Get Over Your Need To Have Your Kid At A Name Brand School That Will Impress Your Friends.” Admission to Harvard wouldn’t be so impressive if it was by lottery, eh? But would Harvard do this if they realized that the cost was reducing their cachet?

  8. Hey, MY kid got into Harvard. Early-admission, too. What’s everybody complaining about?


  1. […] Jacobs passes along Barry Schwartz’s recommendation that elite universities use a lottery for admissions (I couldn’t find the whole article): There is probably a right answer to the questions […]