Dear Harvard, this is how you could run an admissions lottery

Dear Harvard College Admissions,

As you’re quite aware, there have been increasing calls for you to try out an admissions lottery system. Calls like the one here, for example, and here and here and here and here. A lot of people think the most fair way to handle admissions for a program that is worth a whole lot but only has an acceptance rate under 5% is to literally leave it up to chance. No legacy admissions, no diversity goals, no athletic recruitment, no committee votes. This, they say, would guarantee true diversity by taking away all biases and loopholes.

I completely understand your reluctance to go in this direction. The lottery system doesn’t take into account all the different problems that admissions has to address. You need to make sure you have as diverse a class as possible without using a quota system. You need to make sure you have a balance of probable science majors and humanities majors, so no department finds itself suddenly overloaded or left empty. You need to identify future leaders to nurture and diamonds in the rough to polish. You need to make sure you have enough athletes to fill the team rosters and artists to fill the studios and musicians to fill the bands and orchestras. You need to make sure that Harvard stays on the cutting edge by enrolling students who wouldn’t have been at Harvard in the past, and you need to maintain identity and tradition by enrolling, among others, children and grandchildren of former students. There’s a lot to balance, and a lottery doesn’t necessarily make sure you’ve got all the bases covered.

And I also understand the objections to a lottery that are philosophical, not just practical. Why should the oldest and most prestigious university in the United States decide to give up control, to just leave everything to chance? (Warikoo mentions all the money and time you’ll save, but a lack of funding or resources isn’t really a problem you face, is it?)

I remember an exercise I did with an AP Literature class a few years ago. It was a section on literary canon and diversity, and we ended with an in-class group assignment. I gave each group of four or five students a list of 10 canonical, “classic” novels that can pretty much be expected to be on an AP Lit. syllabus. They are, of course, almost completely written by white men. I also gave a list of 10 novels by a younger and more diverse set of authors. They aren’t second-rate books: they’re books that are just as worthy to be on an AP Lit. syllabus, but they’re not as “traditional.” The assignment was to come up with a reading list of 7-10 novels for a syllabus. It should have enough of the “classics” to ensure people have a sense of what’s been canonical and understand shared references in college and beyond, but also have enough new entries to help make the canon more inclusive and viable in the future. How would they go about tackling this problem? How would they decide which of their old favorites to leave off, and which newcomers to get the seal of approval?

To my surprise and dismay, almost every group found the solution simple: just pick randomly from the 20 titles. Isn’t this giving up authority and control, I asked? Isn’t this a cynical non-answer to a difficult question? Isn’t this shrugging off the importance of the exercise?!? Yep, they said. There’s no perfect answer, so just pick from a hat and move on. When I tried to push back, a student said “everybody loses, but it’s fair.”

Everybody loses, but it’s fair. That’s what a Harvard admissions lottery feels like to me. I imagine it does to many of you, too.

But the thing is, I don’t think is has to be this way. There’s a way to have a lottery and keep control. The University of Texas at Austin has been doing it for years. UT-Austin doesn’t have a lottery, true. But they—and all the Texas public universities—have the top 10% rule. All Texas students who graduate in the top 10% of their graduating class gain automatic admission to a Texas public college. So the schools have lost control of who gets in, to a large degree. But not a complete loss of control. At UT-Austin, the automatically admitted group is now down to only the top 6%, because they only fill 75% of their spots with automatic admissions.

The other 25% is filled holistically, like most other universities. So they have no control over three fourths of their incoming class, but control over the remaining quarter. This gives them the opportunity to fill in gaps, balance what needs balancing, and find lower-ranked Texas students and out-of-state students to make sure they can run a full university. The percentage cut-off for admission changes, not the percentage of control the admissions department keeps.

You could do the same. Hand 75% of your openings to a lottery, but keep 25% for holistic admission. Get the benefits of both systems, the change and perceived fairness that comes from the lottery and the necessary control that comes from holistic admissions.

If it were up to me, I’d do it this way:

First, rate each applicant as non-admissible, admissible, or desirable. That person who is probably not going to succeed at Harvard, but applied just to try their chances in the lottery? There’s no need to pretend they’re admissible. The student who got a perfect SAT score, is valedictorian of their class, and did a science fair project that was so good an international conference asked them to present? There’s no need to pretend they’re not more desirable than most applicants. So each student ends up with a score of 0, 1, or 2.

The next step is really, really important if this is going to work: you have to make sure your ratings are fair before moving on. Do they pass the “smell test”? Are most of your zero-scoring applicants from low-income backgrounds? Are most of your twos wealthy students from mostly-white prep schools? You can’t and won’t use any type of quotas, but don’t go forward until everyone on the committee can honestly say the ratings are fair. This process will look a lot like the one you currently have, except you won’t need to limit the top two ratings to a certain number of people.

Then, send the non-admissible applicants the “skinny letter” and put the rest into the lotto. Use the lotto to fill 75% of the class. That part’s done.

Use the remaining 25% to fill in gaps, whatever they may be. If you need more STEM people or more Humanities people, here’s your chance. If you still need to find that linebacker for the football team or trombonist for the band, here’s your chance. If you need to let in the child of the family donating $40 million (assuming the child is admissible) because not even Harvard can afford to say no to $40 million, so be it. If you can fill in the gaps using only the top-rated students, fine. That’s what the top rating is for. If you want to fill the wait list with only the desirable students, ok. Because the admissible students got the same shot as the desirable students in the first round that filled 75% of the seats.

With this split system, a lot of people win and it’s fair. If you need to make adjustments as you go, there’s room to do so. Maybe you end up reducing the lottery pool to 70% instead of 75%. Maybe you give a little bit—but not too big!—to the the top applicants. Maybe a 5-4 ratio of desirable to admissible. There’s room for those tweaks, just as UT-Austin has made adjustments that makes the 10% rule only a 6% rule.

What about Early Decision? Should you keep it under this system? Because ED favors those confident enough in the financial aspects, it tends to favor the wealthy. But since Harvard is need-blind and meets full need, I think you can safely keep ED for the reasons that universities like ED—it helps find students who are strongly committed to enrolling. But I’d use the same basic system. Pick most of your ED-admitted students randomly from the qualified applicants, and defer the rest into the regular pool.

This two-tier system isn’t perfect. I understand. But the system you have now, which is likely to be scrutinized by the Supreme Court, isn’t perfect either. And UT seems to be doing ok.

To be clear, I’m only writing this to you because you seem to be getting the most attention from the pro-lottery advocates. But this is completely applicable to all the need-blind, full-need universities.


Someone who would probably wouldn’t be admitted under any of the systems.

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Photo by  Zoe Herring

Photo by Zoe Herring