The Pros and Cons of College Admissions Lotteries
Published on May 17, 2021
- Critics of competitive college admissions want a lottery system to choose students at random.
- Admissions lotteries have been touted for years and already exist at some schools.
- Proponents claim lotteries would increase diversity, reduce anxiety, and promote individuality.
- Opponents, however, say lotteries rely too heavily on grades and test scores.
With applications to highly selective colleges at an all-time high and acceptance rates in the single digits, students hoping for a coveted spot may feel as if they're playing the lottery, perhaps with only a slightly better chance of winning.
But what if the Ivy League and similarly selective schools used a real lottery system and chose their students at random?
Sound preposterous? Not to some people, including education policy experts and college professors.
College Admissions Lottery Systems Already Exist
While the concept of admissions lotteries has gained traction recently, it's not exactly new. Consider this quote from a higher education analyst of not-so-recent vintage:
"The entire practice of college admissions needs to be reexamined, and … colleges, in the interests of putting the concept of 'equality of educational opportunity' into practice, might want to consider abandoning altogether the use of grades and tests in admissions, and instead instituting a lottery system for choosing among their applicants."
This might sound like a critique of the current state of affairs in college admissions, but it's actually from 1969.
Many high schools, including public charter schools and magnet schools, have instituted admissions lotteries.
A year later, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tried putting the theory into practice. The university admitted part of its first-year College of Liberal Arts & Sciences class using a lottery system. A large number of top students were denied admission, resulting in angry families and public outrage. Eventually the school rescinded the lottery results and admitted all rejected candidates.
Elsewhere, admissions lottery systems have proven viable. Public charter schools use them, particularly in major cities, where as many as four potential students vie for each open spot. Magnet schools such as Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia and Lowell High School in San Francisco have instituted lottery systems as well, though not without controversy.
Leeds Beckett University and the University of Huddersfield in England use lotteries for certain programs, and universities in the Netherlands have used them to admit students to professional schools.
So admissions lotteries have been used for some time, and with some success. But are they a good idea for elite colleges in the U.S.?
3 Benefits of College Admissions Lotteries
They Would Increase Diversity and Access
In 2019, four Democratic senators issued a challenge to the education community. They sought innovative proposals to make higher education more accessible and equitable for people of color. Among the four was Vice President Kamala Harris, who was a senator at the time.
Admissions lotteries could help eliminate legacy admissions that many believe “overwhelmingly favor white and wealthy applicants.”
The think tank New America responded with a variety of recommendations, including the suggestion that elite institutions "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 goal would be to eliminate legacy admissions that give an advantage to children of alumni and that many, including New America, believe perpetuate "admissions preferences that overwhelmingly favor white and wealthy applicants." Institutions choosing not to participate in the lottery system would forfeit eligibility for federal student aid and research dollars.
Others have suggested that because lotteries give everyone an equal chance at admission, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity would naturally increase. "A lottery," notes one advocate, "although arbitrary, might allow random selection to serve important democratic goals."
They Would Reduce Stress and Anxiety
For students seeking entry to the most competitive institutions, the admissions process can feel like a winner-take-all competition, fraught with anxiety and questions of self-worth.
However, if students knew they had to be just "good enough" to make the lottery cutoff at a certain school — likely some combination of GPA and SAT/ACT score — it would eliminate the stress of needing to game the system to appear that much better than everyone else.
If you achieved the minimum SAT requirement for a lottery system, would you even consider taking the exam again to improve your score? If your GPA made the cutoff, would you really have to take that challenging AP course hoping for a boost? Would you need to spend all that time, energy, and money participating in extracurricular activities to appear well-rounded?
As unfair as a lottery might seem to those who believe they stand above the pack, there's a certain comfort in random selection — in knowing you did enough to qualify for consideration without wondering if one more A or another 10 points on the SAT would have made any difference.
They Would Promote Experimentation and Self-Expression
Competitive college admissions, at least in the eyes of some, is often about taking the right courses and participating in the right activities, even if those choices don't align with students' true passions. A lottery system wouldn't penalize students who explore intellectual and artistic interests that deviate from that prescribed path.
"Secondary schools could once again be places for experimentation," suggests one professor. "Learning could once again be guided by curiosity rather than competition. Adolescents could once again devote at least some of their time to figuring out what kind of people they are and want to be."
And wouldn't that lead to happier students more prepared to pursue those passions in college?
3 Drawbacks of College Admissions Lotteries
They Would Not Increase Diversity and Access
Several studies have posited that lottery systems would not achieve the aim of promoting diversity and inclusion. One study found that "a lottery-based system with a realistic minimum threshold will result in only a minuscule rate of minority acceptance compared to that of whites."
Another study, which included candidates with test scores among the top 10%, produced a class with 2.5% from underrepresented ethnic groups and 6.6% from lower-income families.
Some proponents of lottery systems have suggested giving extra weight to applicants who meet certain diversity requirements. A Harvard Law School professor recommended putting the names of underrepresented candidates in the pool several times to increase their chances of admission. The NBA uses such a weighted system when drawing ping pong balls to determine teams' draft order.
Some proponents of lottery systems have suggested giving extra weight to applicants who meet certain diversity requirements.
One solution would be to simply exclude highly desirable candidates from the lottery, offering them admission outright. Another would be to treat such candidates competitively within special pools of students with similar backgrounds.
Yet introducing variables into a lottery violates the very spirit of the system. Adding weight to a candidate or a particular group — even if done with noble goals in mind — eliminates the chance element and reintroduces the favoritism lotteries are designed to avoid.
If you start putting a thumb on the scale for some students, might competitive admissions eventually reintroduce previous forms of bias in which children of alumni and donors are also given special consideration?
They Would Ignore Special Talents
Admissions lotteries might make college admissions even more of a numbers game. An institution would have to establish a cutoff point for grades and test scores or risk having hundreds of thousands of underqualified students apply for a random chance at admission.
But while a high GPA and test score threshold would limit the chaos and result in a more academically able class, it would further reduce candidates to a statistical portrait and ignore the subtleties of talent. Today's admissions officers delve deep into an applicant's portfolio, discovering the holistic picture of what makes each candidate unique.
Putting applications into "yes" or "no" piles based on stats could leave out exceptional musicians, writers, artists, leaders, and others who excel at a particular endeavor but whose scores eliminate them from consideration. Of course, athletes would have to be treated as a separate concern altogether; a lottery system might not yield a star tight end or point guard.
They Would Have Limited Effect Unless Adopted Universally
For a lottery system to achieve the various goals proponents tout, it would have to be adopted by all highly competitive colleges. If only a few did — even if those few constituted the entire Ivy League — the current problems would persist at the 50 or so remaining institutions. Any agreements of the sort, however, smack of collusion, which is frowned upon by the Justice Department.
Instead, competitive colleges could continue to tweak the system, much like they did this past year by waiving standardized test requirements because of COVID-19. Many are extending that waiver for another year or two, while others are expanding access by increasing enrollments.
Are Admissions Lotteries the Future of Higher Ed?
Admissions lotteries are unlikely to become a reality anytime soon. Colleges have turned the admissions process into a carefully calculated combination of art and science, and they believe their system, for all its faults and limitations, produces the results they desire.
They're not about to let the luck of the draw determine their fate and that of their potential students.
Feature Image: Maddie Meyer / Staff / Getty Images News