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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

End the craziness with college lottery

Stanford offered admission to 2,040 of the 47,450 students who applied in 2018: That’s 4.3 percent, a new low. Most of the 45,410 who were rejected were excellent students who could have been successful.

Credit: Ellen Winkler/Chronicle Review

Elite colleges should stop agonizing over who’s marginally more desirable than whom, argues Dalton Conley, a Princeton sociology professor, in the Washington Post. Instead, he writes, selective college should set qualification standards and hold a lottery.

Conley envisions universities using “a mix of criteria such as SAT scores, class rank, personal essay, extracurricular activities and challenges such as overcoming economic hardship (all rated separately and blindly)” to decide who’s qualified for the lottery. “The key is that the evaluation is made without any knowledge of the candidates’ legacy status, race, geographic location or other criteria.”

In the same way that medical residency programs and newly minted doctors sort each other out, the applicants would order their college preferences in advance and be matched to their top-choice school that drew their name in its lottery. Students could rank their college choices contingent on the financial packages they offer. No more strategic gaming or early decision. No waiting lists and endless nail-biting.

Alia Wong, writing in The Atlantic, proposes a college lottery that would take race and location into account. For example, she writes, Harvard could use “an SAT score of 1470 or above, a 3.5 or higher GPA, a demonstrable interest and aptitude in particular non-academic activities, a record of overcoming obstacles, and so on” to qualify applicants for its lottery. “To continue to promote diversity, the school could give extra weight to certain applicants depending on, say, their zip code, the kind of high school they attended, their income, and their race.”

Social scientists could use the random nature of the lottery to evaluate whether elite colleges add value or simply admit students likely to be successful, writes Conley. “If one simply looks at the career outcomes of elite-college graduates, they do appear to fare better than the typical university graduate.”

However, a 2002 study suggested that “Jane who scored 1500 on her SATs will be just fine, whether she goes to Stanford or State U,” he writes. Economists looked at what happened to “students who were admitted to the most selective schools but attended a less selective institution, whether because of financial concerns, family needs or some other reason. The students who were accepted at, say, Columbia but took a non-Ivy route ended up doing just as well in their careers as those who enrolled.”

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