The College Lottery

November 2, 2018

If you’ve been keeping up with education news this fall, you’ve likely heard about Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, a lawsuit against Harvard University claiming that Asian-American students are treated unfairly in the admissions process. It is being called a landmark case in the United States because it re-examines the idea of affirmative action. Although the case is currently on trial in a Federal District Court in Boston, many believe it will soon end up in the Supreme Court with a decision that could change admission processes across the country. 

Not only has this lawsuit sparked an important conversation about affirmative action, but it has also shed a light on one of the most lucrative college admissions processes. This has led students, parents, and scholars alike to ponder the important question: what is the fairest way to determine college admissions? Some experts claim that under the right circumstances, lotteries are the only way for elite colleges to fairly select their incoming class. 

What Would a Lottery Look Like?

Now I know what you are probably thinking, how could a lottery possibly be fair? And trust me, I was right there with you, until I read an Atlantic article a few weeks ago that left me wondering if college admissions offices have it all wrong. Experts suggest that Harvard, and other elite colleges, should set criteria for applicants such as a minimum ACT/SAT score, a minimum GPA, involvement in extracurricular activities, a demonstrated leadership position, etc., and use those factors to select a much smaller pool of applicants for the lottery. 

To ensure diversity among campuses, certain factors like zip codes, family income, and race would be given more weight in the lottery. Admission to an elite university would no longer be about having the right connections, getting the best grades, or identifying as someone from an under-represented population. It would hinge on simply being “good enough” and lucky, something that already seems to be present in many admission processes. Because for every student who is accepted into a school like Harvard, two equally qualified, equally deserving candidates are rejected.

Is this Actually Feasible?

The short answer is no, at least not yet. In order for this system to actually be fair to applicants, it would require every elite college to adopt the same system and judge students on roughly the same criteria. Many other Ivy League and elite universities have shown their full support for Harvard’s current admission process and claim that their tactics are necessary to find the “right” incoming class. If the Harvard lawsuit has shown us anything, it’s that these institutions are not likely to change their methods anytime soon. 

The truth is that college admissions processes will always be biased, as long as humans are involved. There is no way to ensure that the process will be 100 percent fair, even with a lottery approach, but I think this could be a step in the right direction. As more students apply to universities, decisions will only become harder. The lottery would give elite colleges a method to still be selective with candidates while leaving part of the process up to chance. 

A Holistic Approach to College Admissions

Two years ago at this time, I was writing college essays, securing recommendation letters, and triple-checking applications. I, too, was caught up in the vortex of applying to elite schools hoping that my test scores were high enough and my essays stood out. Even then, I recognized that meeting all of the school’s criteria wasn’t enough to secure my admission, I needed some luck too. The idea of a lottery system intrigues me because it places a life-changing decision out of the hands of a human being into the hands of a computer-generated algorithm. Scary or exciting? In some ways, it’s both. 

For many students who end up at an elite university like Harvard, it was not an overnight decision. Their high school careers were dedicated to acing tests, befriending teachers, gaining leadership positions, volunteering, whatever they needed to be a well-rounded candidate. And on some levels, I relate. College was my biggest focus in high school and I made a lot of decisions based on how I thought they would be perceived on a college application. I can’t help but wonder how an admission lottery would have changed my application experience. Without the pressure of needing to be the best, would I have taken different classes in high school or joined different clubs? While I can’t answer that question with complete certainty, the next generation of college students just might have the chance to.