For the second time in as many years, the nation is in the midst of a frenzy over who gets to sleep in the extra-long twin beds at a tiny fraction of highly selective colleges and universities. Last year, it was a lawsuit over Harvard University's admissions process, particularly its treatment of Asian-Americans. This year, it's a scandal involving rich parents and a criminal scheme to get their children into universities like Yale, Stanford and the University of Southern California. Fifty people have been charged in a scam that allegedly includes cheating on the SAT and ACT and bribing unscrupulous coaches.
By highlighting flaws in the college admissions process, these stories illustrate the deep inequities in access to the United States' elite universities. And the debate is surfacing some out-of-the-box ideas about what an alternative might look like. For example: What about a lottery?
Rick Hess, who directs education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, proposed the idea in a Forbes piece on March 15:
"Maybe elite colleges should put their money where their mouth is when they pontificate about the need to democratize opportunity, take a page out of the K-12 charter school book, and switch to lottery admissions."
In other words, pull names out of a hat. Anyone with a high school diploma could end up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. No more pricey SAT tutors, no more legacy bumps, no more sweating bullets over college essays, no more College Board — and a lot less work for guidance counselors too.
Hess later called this, cheekily, a "modest proposal" and acknowledged it would face many practical obstacles.
But in February, the progressive think tank New America proposed the same idea in all sincerity.
Four Democratic senators, including presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, requested policy ideas to increase racial equity in higher ed. Along with big changes to financial aid, New America proposed the "radical" ideas of banning legacy admissions as a condition of receiving federal aid and "requiring" elite institutions to "participate in a lottery-based admissions system where anyone who has a minimum SAT or ACT score and/or GPA can enter the lottery for free."
"The idea of a meritocracy in higher education is a joke," says Rachel Fishman, the deputy director of education policy research at New America. "I was trying to think of a more radical proposal that would be more meritocratic."
Better standards than test scores
For a subset of privileged and striving Americans, this would come as a huge shock. They have a lot riding on the current arduous process of finding the "dream school" for each student and, even more so, on the lifelong work of shaping their kids into being the "dream student" for a particular group of elite schools. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute is among those pointing out that an admissions lottery would be a "huge blow" to the prestige of elite colleges, not to mention hiring practices in the corporate world.
But let's put aside for a moment how feasible the idea is. Would it even work as advertised?
The Match and the OneApp
We have some empirical evidence to point to. Entry processes with an element of randomness are found throughout the world — in Turkey, the Netherlands, the U.K. (for certain courses of study) and New Zealand and Sweden (for K-12 schools). Usually they are not pure lotteries. Students typically have to meet some kind of criteria on transcripts and test scores and list their choices in order. A central system tries to marry the schools' and students' preferences to get the best outcome for everyone.
One example in the U.S. is the National Resident Matching Program, known as The Match, for future doctors. The math involved in optimizing medical students' choices of residency programs and those programs' choices of students is so complicated that Lloyd Shapley and Alvin Roth won the 2012 Nobel Prize in economics for it.
As school choice, among charter and public schools alike, has grown in the U.S., there has been increasing interest in adapting The Match to try to create more fairness, equity and transparency for everyone. For example, New Orleans transitioned to a nearly 100 percent charter district after Hurricane Katrina. With no more neighborhood schools, families, overwhelmingly poor and African-American, struggled to manage the varying deadlines and requirements for charter school entry.
The city's solution: a single application, aptly called OneApp, to match students with preferred schools. "OneApp was mainly intended to make the process less chaotic and burdensome so it would at least seem fair," says Douglas Harris of the Education Research Alliance at Tulane University. Through the adoption of OneApp, "the system gained more credibility."
Harris has studied the OneApp process extensively, and he says that unfortunately, OneApp hasn't really made schools more fair. New Orleans schools are no less segregated — by race, income or test scores — than before OneApp. As one grandmother told us when we reported from New Orleans: "You take what they give you. That's not choice."
Parag Pathak, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, helped design OneApp. He played a part in designing school-choice systems in Boston; Chicago; Denver; Newark, N.J.; New York; and Washington, D.C. Like Harris, he agrees the main benefit of admissions lotteries is that they set ground rules everyone can agree on: "They make the process transparent in terms of the rules."
Pathak has a negative, but striking, example of that transparency: In 2018, Antwan Wilson, then the chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, broke the rules of the city's lottery system — rules he himself had just overhauled — to transfer his daughter into a coveted high school ahead of 600 people on the waiting list. The ethics violation was clear, and Wilson was forced to resign.
More credible, more transparent, less chaotic, less burdensome — these changes would surely be a balm for critics of the admissions process at elite colleges and universities.
Even with lotteries, schools find a way to gate-keep
But Pathak and Harris aren't so sure, based on their research, that a lottery would actually produce more fairness or equity in higher education — for poor students, students of color or anyone else. They argue that it hasn't done that for K-12.
The reason? Let's return to New Orleans for a second.
K-12 schools in the Big Easy are similar to colleges in terms of demand. Just one in five colleges is actually selective.
Similarly, Harris says only about 20 percent of the city's schools have more applications than students — in other words, they are "oversubscribed," meaning seats must be allocated by lottery. These schools also draw a group of white, affluent applicants who will head to private schools if they don't get into their small number of preferred charter schools.
The other 80 percent of schools, like 80 percent of colleges, have more seats than applicants.
When the competition is so concentrated in a handful of schools, opportunities to "sort and screen" students keep creeping back into the system, Pathak says.
"Centralized systems require a lot of maintenance," he says, sounding a bit like a beleaguered janitor.
In his upcoming book, Harris describes a total of 20 ways that the elite schools "sort and screen" to maintain their eliteness, like their location in a rich or poor neighborhood, the programs they choose to offer or even encouraging current parents to recommend the school to their friends. Intentional or not, this kind of signaling undermines open access, Harris says.
Or take New York City. It has a citywide system of ranked-choice matching, like OneApp for middle and high schools.
Students have hundreds of schools to choose from, and individual high schools had trouble figuring out which students really wanted to go to them. So they created an "open-house priority" for students who demonstrated interest by coming to an open house.
The not-very-surprising outcome? Teens with two working parents who were not native English speakers had a harder time navigating across boroughs to show up to open houses months before the high school application was due. Nor did they necessarily understand the importance of doing so. So New York City nixed the open-house priority.
But still, people are focused on eight high schools out of the hundreds in the city — the ones that have a special standardized test for admissions and that admit tiny numbers of black students.
What education researchers like Harris and Pathak really wish everyone would do is stop worrying so much about admissions. For that to happen, they have to stop confusing selective schools with good schools.
"I think it's unfortunate there's so much attention on a handful of schools that don't represent the schools that most students go to," says Pathak. "My own view? There's a lot of other things we should be thinking about." For example: making all the schools better.