Why elite colleges should use a lottery to admit students

If the Harvard admissions trial teaches us anything, it should be that there are more brilliant and accomplished young people in the United States eager for a top-notch education than there are seats to accommodate them. Places like Harvard and other elite colleges select students from a pool flush with well-qualified applicants who could handle the coursework, contribute to campus life, and go on to great things after college.

The former president of Harvard, Drew Faust, once said that Harvard could fill the class “twice over with valedictorians.” And as part of its defense in what has come to be known as “the affirmative action trial,” the university has said it could also fill its incoming class of roughly 2,000 students almost twice over with students with perfect scores on the math SAT.

As an expert on college admissions, I see a simple solution to this admissions challenge that could not only spare universities scrutiny over how they admit students, but could also save them a lot of time and money. As I suggest in my book, “The Diversity Bargain And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities,” universities should try an admissions lottery to admit students.

Political science professor Peter Stone argues that when there are more candidates than seats and no way to distinguish how deserving they are, a lottery becomes the fairest way to choose candidates in a selective system. If ever there were a university in this situation, Harvard would be it.

The admissions lottery I envision – which would involve applicants who meet a certain academic threshold – would help universities faced with large numbers of qualified applicants, such as Harvard, admit students in a more equitable way. The lottery would accomplish two important goals.

1. Make the process more fair

The so-called “fairness” of Harvard admissions holds incredible symbolic meaning in American society. The group suing Harvard over race-based admissions even call themselves “Students for Fair Admissions.” The most fair thing colleges like Harvard can do is to acknowledge that selection inevitably favors those with resources. Indeed, the more selective colleges are, the more privileged the students admitted are.

An admission lottery would send a clear message that admission is significantly based on chance, not just merit, which is actually how admissions works now – it’s just that students think it’s based exclusively on merit when it’s not. Even the extensive analyses by top economists both for and against Harvard in the affirmative action lawsuit could not predict the admissions outcomes of one in four applicants.

In other words, even when you build a statistical model that includes everything from an applicant’s grades and SAT scores to their parents’ professions, what state they live in, and many other factors, it’s hard to understand admission decisions. This suggests lottery-like outcomes.

Further, the current admissions process suggests to students who get into the likes of Harvard that they deserved their spot exclusively on their own merits – that is, despite their parents’ wealth, whether or not their parents attended the school, and any advantages stemming from the high schools they attended coming into play. As I show in my book, most undergraduates at Ivy League universities think the admissions process for their universities is fair and the best way to select students.

But it is well established that those who get into colleges like Harvard come from wealthier, better-educated families than teens in the U.S. overall. They also tend to more frequently be white or Asian. So unless society believes that merit is not evenly distributed across the population, pretending that admissions is meritocratic makes it seem like elite students are more worthy than those who are disadvantaged, when the reality is they just had more advantages.