What's wrong with an admissions lottery?

In the past few weeks I've written about Affirmative Action (I'm not at all against it) and Legacy Admission (I'm not at all against it, either). There's one more admissions policy I'd like to consider, and it's mostly just a hypothetical one: using a lottery to admit qualified students to elite universities.

I've seen the idea mentioned a few times this year, and each time it was in reference to Natasha K. Warikoo's book The Diversity Bargain. I happen to own a copy of The Diversity Bargain, so let me quote the passage in Warikoo's "Conclusion" section (pages 200-201 if you're reading along):

"Given these problems with meritocracy, I propose a thought experiment for selective universities. Why not scrap the notion of meritocracy altogether and go with an admissions lottery? At the very least, why not simply identify criteria for selection and enter everyone who makes it over that bar into a lottery? A lottery would force us all--admitted students, rejected students, parents, university faculty and administrators, and society as a whole--to rethink our faith in meritocracy and the inequality it invariably produces. In other words, it would change the meaning of admission to universities like Harvard and Oxford, signaling that studying there is a valuable opportunity, but one that is granted somewhat by luck."**

I really like this as a thought experiment, and I really want to like this as a policy, but I'm having difficulty. If the criteria that a school uses to determine who is qualified to be entered into the lottery are simplistic and crude, then the outcomes are going to be simplistic and crude. If the school works hard to make the qualifications align with the school's stated goals and give plenty of room to identify "diamond in the rough" applicants who make a great fit even if they don't have great application numbers in terms of GPA and test scores, then I don't know how a lottery would really make things much different. And if the criteria a school uses to determine who qualifies give any advantage--deliberately or not--to students from a privileged background, then the results would probably reflect that inequality but give it a sense of fairness due to the luck factor.

So I would favor a lottery system if I were convinced the method would actually produce the desired results--more fairness, less inequality, a true acceptance of luck as a part of merit. I'm doubtful. But let's look at two examples to see how things might actually work.

While not a lottery, Texas uses pre-determined criteria to allow for guaranteed acceptance to its state universities. The criteria is simply be in the top 10% of your graduating class (assuming you graduate in Texas).  The idea is similar to the motivating idea behind Warikoo's thought experiment. It recognizes that people come from different backgrounds and situations, and that some schools are considered better than others. It recognizes that the top students from any high school are qualified to go to college. It also recognizes that the state has to demonstrate "race blind" methods for diversifying the student body before they're allowed to consider race as a factor. It's known, appropriately, as the "10% Rule."

But at UT-Austin, the gurantee is actually only for the top 8%. Why is that? Because UT-Austin is popular enough that they could fill up a whole class with nothing but top ten percenters, but they don't want to. If the entire class were filled with those from the top 10% of Texas high schools, then the university would lose the control to make sure they meet other needs. Things like geographic diversity by admitting students from out of Texas, things like making sure they have enough students with the right interests to fill up all their departments without overfilling a few, things like having enough piccolo players for the band. Race-blind diversity measures are really important to Texas, but it's not the only important thing, so UT-Austin retains its control to make sure they have room to accept people who don't meet their own "lottery."

I actually worked at a high school that practiced what Warikoo is talking about. It's an elite (#8 in the U.S. News national rankings, for example) magnet high school for gifted/talented students. And the school district uses a system exactly like the one Warikoo proposes. Through a number of tests and recommendations, students are given a "matrix score" to show their level of giftedness (a few extra points are given for students from underrepresented groups). Any student who lives in the district and has a qualifying score can apply to the school. Any student who doesn't qualify cannot apply. And if there are more applications than seats available--and there usually are--then a lottery drawing decides who gets in and the order of the wait list. 

If I'm remembering correctly, the school district made one exception from the beginning, and that is to automatically give a spot to a qualifying student with a sibling already at the school. This isn't so much "legacy" admissions as it is practical--if you're already driving one kid to school, you'd prefer not to have to drive another one to a different school.

But in the first year or two of the lottery, people noticed problems. I don't have profiles or numbers to prove this--those things are confidential and protected by law--but there was a sense that the overall quality of students may have gone down. It was possible to end up with a student who barely qualified and wasn't particularly excited to go to the school, while at the same time a kid in the 99th percentile who'd grown up wanting to go to the school got a bad draw in the lottery. Like UT-Austin, the school district made some changes to make it a little better. Now, when you apply to magnet schools, you have to rank your order. And if you get accepted to your top choice, they drop your application to all the others. That way, students who would really rather be at another school are less likely to nab a seat, just on the lottery outcome, from someone who is enthusiastic about being there. Most years, the entire wait list got a call to see if they were still interested. It made for a stressful summer waiting to get off the wait list, but most of the qualified kids who wanted to be there got a chance.

But again, my reservations about an admissions lottery for in-demand schools are only procedural, not philosophical. An open lottery would help us admit what is already true but hard to admit: getting accepted to a selective university has an element of luck involved; getting denied to one doesn't necessarily mean you're not qualified; it's difficult to make a complete fair system out of such a wide variety of applicants and school goals.

So here's my alternate thought experiment: what if elite universities already use, more or less, a lottery system? What if the admissions committees of the famous and selective schools take all the thousands of applicants, weed out the ones they find unqualified, and then choose at random from the ones that are qualified? Maybe they look at the results and make changes as needed. Still need that piccolo player but have too many trombonists? Make a switch. Have a fabulous Legacy applicant you really can't say no to? Fine, but swap out another, though less fabulous, Legacy applicant. The admissions officers would still have final control, but they would start more or less at random and need a good reason to change the results. If schools were to do things that way, how would it affect your thinking about applying to them? How would it affect your reaction to getting accepted or denied? Would you find this system fair or unfair?

If you're applying to a school with an admission rate less than about 20%, it wouldn't be a bad idea to go ahead and assume this is the way it works--not because it does, but because it will give you a better perspective about the luck and whimsy of your admission status, whatever it is.

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** Warikoo, Natasha K. The Diversity Bargain and Other Dilemmas of race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities. Chicago: U Chicago Press, 2016.