Friday, November 26, 2010

Admissions By Lottery

FLG brought this idea up years ago:
I think that I've used this example before, but it's instructive here:
Since economic inequality makes the American high school educational system unfair, let's assign spaces in the freshman class at Harvard according to lottery. Every hs senior in America is automatically entered, and a computer randomly selects who get to go to Harvard. It's completely fair. Everybody has an exactly equal chance. But if it's completely random, then are potential high-achieving hs students going to study their butts off to get straight A's? I don't think so. I'm sure there's lots of other things they would rather be doing than calculus homework. So, it's fair in that it's equal, but as J.S. Mill feared, that equality breeds mediocrity.

Matt Yglesias points out that Dylan Matthews has put the idea, with some important wrinkles up for offer in the Harvard Crimson:
High school seniors would apply to a single admissions body and list their school preferences in order. Schools would set a minimum SAT score and high school GPA so that they do not admit students who truly cannot handle the work, but, otherwise, schools are randomly matched with students who list them as a preference.

Harvard probably has enough sway to launch such a system, but barring that it should set its own minimum threshold and then randomly cull from that vast majority of applicants who meet it. William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, Harvard’s long-time dean of admissions and financial aid, has said that 80 to 90 percent of Harvard applicants are qualified to be here. Harvard should identify that 80 to 90 percent, and then randomly accept 1600-1700 of them.

Some will no doubt object that this will undermine the “excellence” of Harvard’s student body. It will, and that’s exactly the point. For one thing, “excellence” in the Harvard admissions process—and at Harvard—has a lot less to do with virtuous character traits than with an ability to game the system.

Matthews then writes:
There is a deeper moral question here as well. Harvard’s current admissions policies serve to entrench a caste system that grants advantages to the “talented” due to factors beyond their control. No one chooses to be naturally brilliant or to have parents who invest heavily in their pre-K-12 education. Nevertheless, one’s success in life seems contingent on these arbitrary factors, due in part to the existence of institutions like Harvard that reward such unchosen “talent.”

Dylan's proposal is an interesting thought experiments that FLG thinks is ridiculous in practice. Ultimately, the moral case that "No one chooses to be naturally brilliant or to have parents who invest heavily in their pre-K-12 education" undermines the minimum standard argument. There are a whole bunch of people who weren't innately smart enough or given the proper educational resources in K-12 to meet the minimum standards. Isn't the system, therefore, still irredeemably unfair?

Don't get FLG wrong. He agrees with Dylan that the entire system of "meritocracy" encourages people who are very good at excelling in tangible activities that can be listed on paper, Dylan uses the quote “aptitude for showing aptitude," not real scholars or deep thinkers.

But deep down the equality Dylan desires will kill the excellence of Harvard, no matter how you measure or define excellence. They are irreconcilable goals.


Miss Self-Important said...

Isn't this based on Rawls's argument that no one deserves anything they have because it's all an accident of chance, which is supposed to justify redistribution? In the original (Calvinist) formulation of this view, this made sense because innate advantages like intelligence and strength were gifts from God, and the appropriate response to a gift is gratitude, which obligates us to follow God's law and use our talents on behalf of the less fortunate (or less talented). The problem of just deserts is resolved by predestination. Absent this justification though, we might still say I didn't earn my intelligence or my incredible physical strength and preternatural beauty (I could go on...), but how can we say I shouldn't reap their benefits and especially that I owe their fruits to someone else? It might have been the work of arbitrary chance that I was born a genius to extremely wealthy parents and so had an easier path to straight A's, etc., but who has the authority to take away the products of this chance from me?

Alpheus said...

who has the authority to take away the products of this chance from me?

Devil's advocate: Insofar as these products are mediated by society collectively, or by other individuals or groups, then surely society and/or those individuals/groups have the right to change the extent to which they reward your awesomeness? In other words, Harvard can let in whomever it chooses, however it chooses. And surely it wouldn't be unreasonable for Harvard to decide to stop acting as a "force multiplier" for the already-advantaged? Matthews isn't suggesting loading people with iron weights and iron rails as in "Harrison Bergeron"; he's merely proposing that an institution revise its mission.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, Harvard can make any admissions policy it wants or implode for lack of better things to do. My question is how such an admissions policy would actually be more just than a meritocratic one once we grant that talents are by chance. The consequentialist argument that a different admissions policy would be better at not privileging the privileged so much is clearly connected to the admission by lottery because intelligence is by chance argument. Or at least, you could say that Harvard should stop being a force-multiplier without assuming that the people it admits don't really deserve to attend.

Based on the talents-by-chance argument though, how does the state derive a claim to my outputs? Because it mediated them? In that sense, the state mediates--and thereby owns--everything that goes on within its borders, so we'd have to conclude that, as a result of the chance-ness of our being, we can have no claim to anything we are or do or make.

Even if we admit that my awesomeness came about by chance, I'm not sure that anything necessarily follows from that without some kind of ontological grounding for awesomeness. How do we arrive at a concept of just desert from the premise that all talents and outcomes are undeserved?

Alpheus said...

You could say that Harvard should stop being a force-multiplier without assuming that the people it admits don't really deserve to attend.

I don't think Matthews is really saying that the people Harvard admits don't deserve to attend. He's just saying they don't have any special claim to an elite education by virtue of their brilliance or parentage.

FLG said...


I know you are responding to MSI.

Ultimately, the question I have for Matthews is this:
Why is the admissions lottery any more fair than the genetic and parental lottery? At best it is one lottery canceling out another. Or perhaps it mitigates the results of the previous, genetic lottery. But it seems just as just/unjust as the initial lottery to me.

The Ancient said...

Harvard's admissions policies have always bothered someone, and that's not ever going to change.

(Before WW2, for example, upper class men and Southerners tended to prefer Yale -- or in a pinch, Princeton -- because Harvard was known to admit -- ahem! -- non-white students.)

What I dislike about how Harvard assembles its freshmen class is this: They really do think they're able to discern, in a seventeen-year-old, the qualities that will some day, with Harvard's help, allow that child to become a world leader, a captain of industry, a great writer or scientist, etc. I think that's just silly. (Of course, to the extent to which its admissions policies resemble those of Le Rosey, for instance, you can see how they might get part of the way there.)

The real problem is not that the "wrong" people are unfairly advantaged by a Harvard degree. It's that a Harvard degree tends to confer benefits that are incommensurate with a Harvard education.

Miss Self-Important said...

"He's just saying they don't have any special claim to an elite education by virtue of their brilliance or parentage."

I'm not sure. This argument would seem to undermine the premise of "elite education" altogether. How would we justify anyone's getting a better or more advantageous education than anyone else in the first place, even if the recipients were chosen totally at random as FLG suggests?

Anonymous said...

Uhm...did anyone catch this back in the NYTImes in 2007? It's (in a way) related, fascinating and forget the idea about a lottery unless it's a lottery for gifted/well-heeled alone:

Young, Gifted, and Not Getting Into Harvard

ON a Sunday morning a few months back, I interviewed my final Harvard applicant of the year. After saying goodbye to the girl and watching her and her mother drive off, I headed to the beach at the end of our street for a run.

It was a spectacular winter day, bright, sunny and cold; the tide was out, the waves were high, and I had the beach to myself. As I ran, I thought the same thing I do after all these interviews: Another amazing kid who won’t get into Harvard.

That used to upset me. But I’ve changed.

Over the last decade, I’ve done perhaps 40 of these interviews, which are conducted by alumni across the country. They’re my only remaining link to my alma mater; I’ve never been back to a reunion or a football game, and my total donations since graduating in the 1970s do not add up to four figures.

No matter how glowing my recommendations, in all this time only one kid, a girl, got in, many years back. I do not tell this to the eager, well-groomed seniors who settle onto the couch in our den. They’re under too much pressure already. Better than anyone, they know the odds, particularly for a kid from a New York suburb.

By the time I meet them, they’re pros at working the system. Some have Googled me because they think knowing about me will improve their odds. After the interview, many send handwritten thank-you notes saying how much they enjoyed meeting me.

Maybe it’s true.

I used to be upset by these attempts to ingratiate. Since I’ve watched my own children go through similar torture, I find these gestures touching. Everyone’s trying so hard.

My reason for doing these interviews has shifted over time. When I started, my kids were young, and I thought it might give them a little advantage when they applied to Harvard. That has turned out not to be an issue. My oldest, now a college freshman, did not apply, nor will my twins, who are both high school juniors.

We are not snubbing Harvard. Even my oldest, who is my most academic son, did not quite have the class rank or the SATs. His SAT score was probably 100 points too low — though it was identical to the SAT score that got me in 35 years ago.

Why do I continue to interview? It’s very moving meeting all these bright young people who won’t get into Harvard. Recent news articles make it sound unbearably tragic. Several Ivies, including Harvard, rejected a record number of applicants this year.

Actually, meeting the soon-to-be rejected makes me hopeful about young people. They are far more accomplished than I was at their age and without a doubt will do superbly wherever they go.

Knowing me and seeing them is like witnessing some major evolutionary change take place in just 35 years, from the Neanderthal Harvard applicant of 1970 to today’s fully evolved Homo sapiens applicant.

There was the girl who, during summer vacation, left her house before 7 each morning to make a two-hour train ride to a major university, where she worked all day doing cutting-edge research for NASA on weightlessness in mice.

When I was in high school, my 10th-grade science project was on plant tropism — a shoebox with soil and bean sprouts bending toward the light.

These kids who don’t get into Harvard spend summers on schooners in Chesapeake Bay studying marine biology, building homes for the poor in Central America, touring Europe with all-star orchestras.


Anonymous said...


Summers, I dug trenches for my local sewer department during the day, and sold hot dogs at Fenway Park at night.

As I listen to them, I can visualize their parents, striving to teach excellence. One girl I interviewed described how her father made her watch the 2004 convention speeches by both President Bush and Senator John Kerry and then tell him which she liked better and why.

What kind of kid doesn’t get into Harvard? Well, there was the charming boy I interviewed with 1560 SATs. He did cancer research in the summer; played two instruments in three orchestras; and composed his own music. He redid the computer system for his student paper, loved to cook and was writing his own cookbook. One of his specialties was snapper poached in tea and served with noodle cake.

At his age, when I got hungry, I made myself peanut butter and jam on white bread and got into Harvard.

Some take 10 AP courses and get top scores of 5 on all of them.

I took one AP course and scored 3.

Of course, evolution is not the same as progress. These kids have an AP history textbook that has been specially created to match the content of the AP test, as well as review books and tutors for those tests. We had no AP textbook; many of our readings came from primary documents, and there was no Princeton Review then. I was never tutored in anything and walked into the SATs without having seen a sample SAT question.

As for my bean sprouts project, as bad it was, I did it alone. I interview kids who describe how their schools provide a statistician to analyze their science project data.

I see these kids — and watch my own applying to college — and as evolved as they are, I wouldn’t change places with them for anything. They’re under such pressure.

I used to say goodbye at my door, but since my own kids reached this age, I walk them out to their cars, where a parent waits. I always say the same thing to the mom or dad: “You’ve done a wonderful job — you should be very proud.” And I mean it.

But I’ve stopped feeling bad about the looming rejection. When my four were little, I used to hope a couple might go to Harvard. I pushed them, but by the end of middle school it was clear my twins, at least, were not made that way. They rebelled, and I had to learn to see who they were.

I came to understand that my own focus on Harvard was a matter of not sophistication but narrowness. I grew up in an unworldly blue-collar environment. Getting perfect grades and attending an elite college was one of the few ways up I could see.

My four have been raised in an upper-middle-class world. They look around and see lots of avenues to success. My wife’s two brothers struggled as students at mainstream colleges and both have made wonderful full lives, one as a salesman, the other as a builder. Each found his own best path. Each knows excellence.

That day, running on the beach, I was lost in my thoughts when a voice startled me. “Pops, hey, Pops!” It was Sammy, one of my twins, who’s probably heading for a good state school. He was in his wetsuit, surfing alone in the 30-degree weather, the only other person on the beach. “What a day!” he yelled, and his joy filled my heart.

Mrs. P

Anonymous said...

MSI - I haven't read Rawls to claim that chance makes redistribution more moral, rather that all of us would choose redistribution if we didn't know where we would land on the roulette wheel. Does that make sense to you? And my rejection of Rawls is mostly on the view that even before I know where my ball would skitter to a stop, I would prefer to end up in a place where there was an advantage to working hard.

Mrs P - when I was a TA at Harvard (Ec 10) I was astonished at the variation in the kids in my section. Some of them really did not get it. I had assumed - I guess most of us in the grad schools did - that the kids in the College were uniformly well prepared, extremely smart, etc. This was far less true than I had expected. dave.s.

Alpheus said...

FLG/MSI: I think it's important to recognize that Matthews doesn't want to let just anyone into Harvard: one has to qualify for the lottery through GPA, test scores, or whatever. So elite education still has a purpose under his proposal.

I may be projecting, but I think the purpose of a lottery like the one Matthews proposes is to acknowledge (a) the inability of admissions offices to judge applicant pools with perfect wisdom -- see the Ancient's comment -- and (b) the ideal of human equality.

What we have in America is a situation where a college degree from a place like Harvard (Yale, Princeton, etc.) confers a huge advantage in life thereafter. Many of us believe the admissions process as presently constituted isn't fair: I *know* there are thousands of people out there who would have done better with my opportunities than I have. A huge gift is being given to people who are not unambiguously the *most* deserving. Aristotle says the best flute should be given to the best flute player, but in this case we don't really know who's going to be the best flute player after a few years of practice.

In such a case, I'm not sure it's crazy -- or destructive of the idea of justice -- to say: "let's flip for it."

Andrew Stevens said...

This is all going about it in the wrong way. Harvard is a private university which surely has the right to determine its own admissions policy, however wrongheaded that policy might be. If we think that Harvard isn't necessarily that great at selecting the best of its potential applicants, the solution is to stop according so much respect to "Harvard" on a c.v. not to tell Harvard to admit the "right people" or randomize the process or whatever.

Anonymous said...

dave s. - it was my understanding from dating a Harvard boy class of '84 during finishing school days that back then the secret to getting into Harvard was not to be a well-rounded student but excel above and beyond in one way - be it academic, music or sports. That's why that article caught my attention - it showed how much Harvard has changed - if it indeed has.

Now the flip side of all those incredibly gifted and well-primed students getting into Harvard is - if it's anything like Princeton - a more medicated student body. If I'm recalling correctly every student at Princeton now gets $2000 worth of therapy per academic year automatically. Also - I think it was this past school year that Princeton reached the tipping point - more than 50% of the incoming class were receiving some form of financial aid. That's really not a sustainable admissions process in the long run - especially with the hit the endowments have taken in recent years-- unless the alumni continue to give generously.

I've always thought too much was accorded a Harvard or any Ivy degree. And because of this dating them was a dicey prospect as their capacity for being boorish was (much) higher than the rest of the college population. Except for Dekes. But then that proves my point even more as- I think- Deke originated at Yale...

Mrs. P

Anonymous said...

Did anyone ever catch this on 60 minutes? Another fascinating tidbit:

Two good pull points:

"Harvard, he says, has some of the finest students in the world, but he believes most of them are visual illiterates. Their academic lives have been programmed around verbal and mathematical tests that will get them into a good college, but he says they lack a sense of spontaneity.

"“I think they've missed a kind of self-guided, non-organized activity, non-sports activity growing up. Wandering around, getting into things. And the assumption seems to be nowadays is if a child isn't in an organized activity, the child is a criminal,” says Stilgoe. "“But as far as I can understand, most of my colleagues I work with seem to have found their careers by being slightly disorganized. Lucking into something, you know.”"

“This generation of Harvard students gets into Harvard by doing exactly and precisely what teacher wants."

Now that is no different than it was back at Princeton in the late '70/early 80's. My husband had Fouad Ajami for a professor - don't ask me what for exactly- my husband was a liberal arts major (poetry) -anyhoo my husband wrote a paper on Palestine. Not where he argued *his* postion but rather fleshed out Ajami's position -"for the grade". When Ajami came out in support of the Iraq War was when I learned of this as my husband was shocked Ajami supported the war. And still could not believe he ahad authored the paper he did.

Funny, I did much the same thing in art school for my Yale School of Design- educated typography professor- if I wanted an A all I had to do was use one of his 11 approved typefaces - yes, he only allowed 11 but he let us use the entire family but no mixing of said families and to top it off - use hi favorite PMS color 504. PMS as nothing to do with premenstraul syndrome -it is/was the printing code for printers. But now all these years later, maybe PMS does really have everything to do with his premenstraul syndrome...

Oh and this "for the grade" stuff is not only for Ivy profs --it's for all profs and in the business world or academia , church or government the same thing occurs.

Mrs. P

Alpheus said...

Andrew: I'm not sure anyone is trying to force Harvard to do anything. Matthews is a Harvard student urging, in a Harvard newspaper, that Harvard adopt a particular policy.

In principle, I agree with you that the solution to the limitations of the college admissions process is to root out bias toward graduates of "name" schools. In practice, though, such an effort to change our own minds runs up against two powerful factors. First, graduates of top schools, who are well-established on the commanding heights of America's institutions, have strong reasons -- both sentimental and self-regarding -- to continue to favor their "own." Second, people like to make quick decisions on the basis of easily observable markers, and as long as the average Harvard student is superior to the average student from, say, Wesleyan, it's not going to matter that much that the top fifty students from Wesleyan are light years ahead of the bottom fifty students at Harvard.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.