The Chronicle Review

Harvard by Lottery

Shutterstock. Chronicle Review Photo Illustration by Ellen Winkler

April 01, 2012

If spring is the season of budding expectations, it is also a time of educational hopes and aspirations as high-school seniors around the country await letters from college admissions offices. But like so many other institutions, four-year colleges seem to be running in place. They have not increased the proportion of bachelor's degrees they turn out in relation to the number of high-school graduates since the late 1990s, while ratcheting up the competitive bar for entrance. That is, rather than casting a wider net to accommodate more high-school graduates, they have spent increasing effort in competing for position on a fixed playing field.

Gone are the days when, back in the 1980s, my best friend, Rob, and I shot pool and hoops after school and were left largely to our own devices to figure out where we wanted to go to college. Our only resource—even though we attended the so-called best public high school in the county—was Barron's Guide to the Most Competitive Colleges. Over iced tea, we joked that we should apply to Hood College in Maryland—in order to learn the art and science of mugging. We made more-ribald jokes about our other favorite, Ball State University. Then I took the SAT's, one time, with no formal preparation, and left my future in the hands of fate, chance, and luck.

In the end, I applied to a range of colleges. At the last minute, a classmate handed me an application for the University of California at Berkeley that she had filled out in pencil before deciding that it was too far from home. So on the last possible day, I erased her info and penned in my own. Little did I know that I would fall in love with the University of California on my visit the next spring and make that my choice. Rob, meanwhile, attended New York University, where he received tuition remission on account of his father being an employee.

Perhaps we (and our laid-back parents) had it right back in the 1980s. After all, as a professional social scientist, I am privy to the dirty little secret of higher education: All available evidence suggests that it makes not one whit of difference where we attend college—at least on outcomes like future earnings that are fairly easy to measure. All that matters is being smart, savvy, or lucky enough to get into top institutions, regardless of where you end up enrolling.

A 2002 study by the economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger followed kids who were admitted to elite colleges but for whatever reason—usually related to finances or family—instead went to their local state U. Their postcollege socioeconomic success was equivalent to other students who attended the fancy institutions those students shunned. Of course they may have been a self-selected group with the intellectual confidence to eschew a Brown University degree in order to take care of an ailing parent, or to save that parent tuition. So in a more recent study, Dale and Krueger examined where folks applied, assuming that the range of institutions, from safety to dream school, represented a self-assessment of a student's relative strength on the admissions market. Once that range was accounted for, it didn't seem to matter where the student went.

In other words, while the difference between Stanford and no-name college may still matter, within a general range—say Stanford versus San Diego State University—it doesn't make much of a difference where a student goes. Similar analysis has been conducted at the high-school level, examining high-stakes entrance exams in Boston and New York. Logic suggests that there is not any real difference between the ability of two kids, one who just made it over the line for admission to say, my alma mater, Stuyvesant High School, and one who barely came up short. The point or two gap probably reflects luck in the particular mix of questions on exam day or who got more sleep the night before or even who guessed right as they were running out of time. And as it turned out in a recent study by Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Joshua D. Angrist, and Parag A. Pathak, those who went to the most-sought-after high school were little better off than those who went to the next best one in terms of standardized text scores by their senior year or in their rates of college enrollment.

Such evidence aside, however, when I take off my social-scientist hat and put on my parental cap, I can't imagine not taking my kids on a coast-to-coast college tour during their junior year. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't pay for an SAT prep class. And damned if I let them just hang out working on their eight-ball game at a billiard hall after school rather than pursue serious internships and other extracurriculars. This insanity is equally rampant on the other side of the coin. As college officials, we obsess over keeping our acceptance rates down and our yields up. We worry about slight downward blips in the average SAT scores of our entering classes, and we trumpet recruitment victories over our bitter rivals as if they were the battle for Guadalcanal. Why? U.S. News & World Report rankings that parents like me scrutinize.

Efforts at reform over the years have included both introducing the SAT's to break the monopoly of old-boy networks and de-emphasizing that very same test to reduce ethnic and class biases. As a nation, we have argued vociferously over affirmative action, legacy admissions, and the role of student athletics. Perhaps it's time for a radical idea: a lottery system. Besides reducing some of the inequities (not to mention the craziness), a lottery would single-handedly end debates over affirmative action, legacy admissions, and preference for student-athletes.

Briefly, here's how it would work, along the lines of a plan suggested back in 1981 in The Pursuit of Inequality, by Philip Green, a professor emeritus of government at Smith College: An elite college could set a cutoff—say scoring in the top 10 percent of one's graduating class and the SAT's nationally (or perhaps within a racial, regional, or class grouping). If that is too narrow, perhaps a personal statement could also be ranked by an outside agency. Then that college could run a lottery to determine who would be offered admission.

I have long fantasized about sneaking into the admissions office and swapping 50 randomly selected applications from the accept pile with an equal number from the reject list. I would then secretly follow those students to see if going (or not) to NYU made much difference in the lives of the students on a range of measures like knowledge and skill acquisition, postcollege income, and indirect outcomes like health and general well-being.

The idea of a lottery has certainly been suggested on numerous occasions (indeed, the psychologist Barry Schwartz offered a proposal along these lines in these pages in 2005), but no one has jumped on it. I'm sure that the Dukes, Harvards, or Berkeleys are probably no more keen than the makers of the SAT to explicitly test their value added. Still, no one else seems to be clamoring for change either. Why?

The counterargument offered is that the current system works well: High-school students are motivated to study hard and therefore learn more than they would absent such fierce competition. And becausesince it probably doesn't matter which college they attend, there is no cost to the "losers."

But such arguments ignore the fact that obsession with maximizing SAT scores or larding extracurriculars onto our children's college applications deflects efforts from more robust forms of learning that aren't necessarily scored in the admissions process. It's no different than the phenomenon of "teaching to the test" among elementary-school students.

Perhaps we are reluctant to give up on college competition because we Americans are uncomfortable with chance. While we might accept drawing straws for jury duty or for college roommates, we certainly did not like the military draft during the Vietnam War (for many reasons, obviously). We think charter-school lotteries are cruel (see the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman). We even prefer to believe in conspiracies rather than one-off random events (think the Kennedy assassination). There are, of course, deep historical, psychological, and cultural reasons why we favor the illusion of control over fate, chance, and luck. But perhaps it's time to admit—in higher education at least—that serendipity plays a role.

As analysis by Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl of Georgetown University has shown, the effect of socioeconomic background on admissions (particularly for elite schools) has grown enormously over the last few decades—so much so that education as a route to upward mobility may dwindle in importance. The gap in admissions by family income holds even when students score the same on the SAT's. A lottery system that sets a threshold for admissions would not only allow more low-income folks to break the Iivy barrier, but it would also make where you attend college less important in terms of social status, since it would demolish the myth that selective colleges only pick the best and the brightest according to some tried and true secret formula.

Finally, a collateral effect of ending the educational arms race might be to spur investment in a wider array of educational institutions. If you were less sure that your child would be attending your Ivy alma mater, you might be more concerned about making sure that the education at aspirational colleges like the University of Southern California, Washington University in St. Louis, and my own NYU focused less on the proverbial rock-climbing walls and luxury student centers in efforts to lure students and more on producing world-class research and academic innovations.

If a few colleges took the lead, we might just cool all the heat around college admissions and focus our energies on non-zero-sum educational goals. And then we could confrontaddress the real crisis in higher education: wWhy the pie isn't growing rather than who gets which slice.

Dalton Conley is dean of the social sciences and a professor of sociology at New York University and author, most recently, of Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got From the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety (Pantheon Books, 2009).