WHISNANT: The luck of the draw

Universities should use a lottery system to determine undergraduate admissions

Literary critic and former Yale professor William Deresiewicz took to the pages of The New Republic to critique the nation’s most prestigious institutions in a piece provocatively titled, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” In the essay, Deresiewicz dissembles many of the philosophical underpinnings of elite education, ranging from its bankrupt meritocracy to its hollow notions of diversity. While Deresiewicz’s piece devastatingly indicted the current system, it failed to offer a solution. Rather than demanding parents who want the best for their children change their behavior as the title of the article suggests, it is up to the country’s elite institutions to instigate a shift in the values of higher education. The best way to achieve the changes Deresiewicz desires is by instituting a lottery system for college admissions.

In 1976, Yale had 5,088 undergraduate students while the population of the entire United States was around 218 million. Despite population growth of 98 million people, by 2014 Yale had added only a few hundred undergraduates to a student body which also includes over 1,000 international students. With similar trends at other schools, this ever-increasing selectivity has led to a resume padding arms race. Beyond just infecting the mentality of Ivy League schools and their peers, skyrocketing exclusivity has coincided with creeping capitalist values in education. As a consequence, the K-12 system does not attempt to produce good publicly-minded citizens but instead hyper-competitive children whose understandable anxiety fuels profitable college preparation, educational consulting and testing industries. Deresiewicz notes that being a student at an elite institution can cause what he calls a zombie mentality, but the process of “zombification” can begin at as early four or five years of age. The only way to rid ourselves of the nightmare high-stakes kindergarten testing is to change the incentive structure at the very top.

This is where the lottery system comes in. As Harvard legal philosopher Duncan Kennedy proposed for elite law schools in his 1983 essay “Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy,” prospective students would be required to pass some sort of basic skills test, but then admissions officers would assemble a student body through a lottery that roughly (without using hard quotas) resembles the demographics of the country, with allowances for international students as well. Though education policy experts would need to refine specific criteria for the assessment, a new admissions test need not look very different from the ones currently in use by the Common Application with writing samples, some basic standardized testing, teacher recommendations, etc. The crucial difference would be a shift away from the personal biases of admissions staff reading them in favor of the fairness of random number generation. Readers would prune the application pile to eliminate applicants who would be completely unable to deal with a college curriculum, but the class selection would otherwise be a blind process.

A lottery policy would of course require significant changes to the curriculum and an expenditure of resources towards less naturally academic students. As Harvard graduates and journalists Matthew Yglesias and Dylan Matthews note, however, it would be a massive improvement over the status quo. With huge endowments and tuition in the mid to high five figures to finance generous expenditures on the “winners” of the college admissions process, Yglesias notes elite institutions function as “mechanisms for the perpetuation of inequality and hierarchy.”

Since our system distributes lavish resources at the Columbias of the world and skimpy expenditures by comparison for students at schools like J. Sargeant Reynolds that actually do foster socioeconomic mobility, a new orientation of financial resources through the lottery system would ensure that high-achieving students at Ivy League schools continue to get access to renowned professors and less “gifted” students get to enjoy the educational resources their more high-achieving peers are accustomed to receiving because of the large endowments these institutions have accumulated.

That said, as author Chris Lehmann points out, a “fine-tuning of elite experience” is not enough to change the priorities of the higher education system. There are only so many students who can attend Yale even with a lottery system, so it us up the federal government to provide for the academic needs of those students who don’t make it in. The best way to do this, as Lehmann suggests, would be the creation of a new GI Bill-like program which would make college a right available to all for a nominal fee. A higher education system that provides quality public education to all would be a much more rational alternative to our current malaise of ever-increasing student loans and debt, even if the new reforms come with a price tag.

There’s no doubt a lottery system — being a significant departure from current trends in higher education — stands a small chance of being enacted. That said, we should compare it to the supposed sanity of our current system. In 1993, the University of Chicago had an acceptance rate of 77 percent. Today, despite expanding its class size somewhat, that number is down to under 9 percent. With admissions rates for elite institutions inching ever-closer to the symbolically resonant 1 percent, we should ask whether our society really benefits from subjecting children to relentless, escalating pressure to succeed in a system whose bankruptcy is increasingly obvious. As Deresiewicz describes, the idealized elite college campus is a place of intellectual revelation and personal discovery. If our educational institutions continue as they are, that ideal will always be increasingly out of reach.

Gray Whisnant is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at g.whisnant@cavalierdaily.com.

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