Dylan Matthews, a student at Harvard, has proposed a lottery system to replace his university’s current undergraduate admissions process:
“Chad Adelman of the think tank Education Sector has proposed adopting the system used to match medical residents to hospitals. High school seniors would apply to a single admissions body and list their school preferences in order. Schools would set a minimum SAT score and high school GPA so that they do not admit students who truly cannot handle the work, but, otherwise, schools are randomly matched with students who list them as a preference.
Harvard probably has enough sway to launch such a system, but barring that it should set its own minimum threshold and then randomly cull from that vast majority of applicants who meet it. William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, Harvard’s long-time dean of admissions and financial aid, has said that 80 to 90 percent of Harvard applicants are qualified to be here. Harvard should identify that 80 to 90 percent, and then randomly accept 1600-1700 of them.”
This seems like a great idea to me, and I think it could be applied outside of elite universities like Harvard. The bottom line (as Matthews points out) is that every year, universities receive applications from way more qualified candidates than they can accept. The way admissions officers select applicants is arbitrary: for every student accepted to a college, there are several others who were just as good but didn’t get in due to the luck of the draw. Admissions processes are already fairly random, but they include the (conscious or unconscious) biases of the admissions officers. Better to just make the admissions process a lottery system and eliminate these biases altogether.
Matthews has several other arguments as to why this is a good idea, but the educational romantic in me really loves this defense of a liberal arts education:
“Some will no doubt object that this will undermine the “excellence” of Harvard’s student body. It will, and that’s exactly the point. […] By selecting for this kind of behavior [high school résumés jam-packed with extracurriculars], the admissions process doesn’t encourage real excellence, but, to use the novelist Walter Kirn’s term from his hilarious book and essay ‘Lost in the Meritocracy,’ ‘aptitude for showing aptitude.’ This may well be of use in students’ careers after college, but it is orthogonal if not antithetical to the goals of a liberal arts education.”
(Photo by California Cthulhu (Will Hart))