College cheating scandal shows why elite colleges should use a lottery to admit students

Many Americans are outraged by the college admission scandal revealed by the FBI on March 12. The scandal involves celebrities and wealthy investors who allegedly bought their children’s way onto college sports teams and cheated to improve their children’s SAT and ACT scores. Of course, the regular college admissions system also favors the children of wealthy families when it comes to elite colleges.

As an expert on college admissions, I’d like to suggest a simple solution that would make the process more fair: an admissions lottery.

The lottery I envision would involve applicants who meet a certain academic threshold and help universities admit students in a more equitable way. An admissions lottery would accomplish two important goals.

1. Acknowledge the advantage for the wealthy

The most fair thing elite colleges 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. Even the extensive analyses by top economists both for and against Harvard in an affirmative action lawsuit against the school 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 more chance is involved than most people think.

The current admissions process suggests to students who get into Harvard, Yale, the University of Southern California or other desirable schools that they deserved their spot exclusively on their own merits – that is, despite their parents’ wealth, whether their parents attended the school and any advantages stemming from the high schools they attended coming into play.

Actress Lori Loughlin, left, and actress Felicity Huffman are among dozens indicted in a sweeping college admissions bribery scandal. AP
But that is simply not the case. It is well established that those who get into elite schools 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.

2. Save time and money

An admissions lottery would save universities incredible resources. For instance, at Harvard, a 40-person committee of full-time, paid admissions officers votes together on each of the tens of thousands of applicants to Harvard College.