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.