Lottery Admission: Reinventing University Acceptance


Over the years, Michael Sandel, professor of political philosophy at Harvard University, has noticed a change in his students. He observed that his students increasingly believed that their admission to college was based primarily on years of hard work. This view, however, ignores the roles that foreign aid, luck, privilege, and wealth play in academic pursuits.

To help shed light on these strengths, Sandel proposed an admission lottery system, highlighted in his book “The Tyranny of Merit: What Happened to the Common Good?” The process would work exactly as it looks: create a pool of qualified applicants who have achieved a certain grade, then randomize them until the places in the schools are filled. This is the basic process, although there are variations of the admission lottery system put in place by Sandel.

Marketplace Morning Report host Andy Uhler spoke to Sandel about the details of his proposal and what he hopes it will be successful. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Andy uhler: So you’re talking about this idea that higher education can help Americans generate upward mobility, and that’s been the promise for decades. There is a wonderful quote in your book: “American higher education is like an elevator in a building where most people enter on the top floor. Explain to us what you mean by that.

Michel sandel: College is not the engine of the upward mobility that we assume. Raj Chetty and a team of economists conducted a study of 1,800 colleges and universities in America, public and private, selective and non-selective. And they asked, how many students in these places come in poor, from the bottom 20%, and rise to wealth, the top 20%, as adults? It’s 2%. So it’s a mistake for us to think that if we worry about inequalities and if we worry about mobility, the answer is higher education. This is only an answer for a tiny fraction of our students. We must seek other answers to inequalities, because telling people to get a university degree is not a sufficient solution.

Uhler: And you’re talking about this idea of ​​being sort of rooted in American psychology, right? If you ask other people in other countries what is the connection between external factors and their upward mobility, many people in other countries say, “This is largely related to external factors”. We here in America think of it differently, don’t we?

Sandel: Yes, we believe you can do it yourself, you can do it if you try. Politicians give us this slogan all the time. If you want to compete and win in the global economy, go to college. What you earn will depend on what you learn. You can do it if you try.

But it turns out, as inspiring as it sounds, that’s not really true. This does not correspond to the facts on the ground. And there is an insult implicit in this post, which is this: if you don’t thrive in the new economy and if you didn’t go to college, the implication is that your failure is your fault. . So I think we need a broader response to inequalities than just telling people, “Everything will be fine, if only you get a college degree. “

Playing the numbers on college admission

Uhler: You had talked about sort of rethinking the way we admit people to university, especially large universities. The proposal is a lottery system. Explain to people exactly how a lottery system would work.

Sandel: I have noticed that among my students over the years there is an increasing tendency of students to believe that they have worked hard, throughout high school and before they were under tremendous pressure and so their admission is something they deserve. It is the result of their efforts and hard work. But we know, we know that this forgets a lot of help and luck that allowed these young people to achieve their goals.

And so the lottery proposition is this: in these universities, the ones that get a lot more applicants than they can take – I mean, Harvard and Stanford get something like 50,000 applicants for 2,000 places. Most of them are well qualified. Eliminate those who are not well qualified, and among the rest, the 20,000 or 25,000, whatever the number, admits by lot. This is my proposal, as a means of transmitting to the pupils and also to their parents what is true in any case: that luck counts as much as the effort of admission. This is my proposal and, well, I don’t expect it to be passed or accepted anytime soon, but I think it’s a way to mitigate or at least challenge the pride. meritocratic and the intense pressure that young people and their parents endure for years as they pass through the high pressure meritocratic gauntlet.

Uhler: You talk about the different doors you enter the university through, the side door, the front door, the back door. This lottery system, I guess, in theory, would somehow limit who would enter through nefarious means. Is that also the idea?

Sandel: Well, that could very well, because many mechanisms that give an advantage to children from well-off backgrounds include inherited admissions, you get an advantage if your parents are alumni; donor admissions, there are many places, especially private colleges, short of funds, which give an advantage in admissions to children of wealthy donors even if they are not alumni; and also sports scholarships. Overall, they do not give the advantage to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. When considering the sports for which students are recruited – water polo, fencing, squash – these sports admissions also give well-to-do children an advantage. So I think the lottery system would allow us to overcome a lot of that.

It would still be compatible if the college wanted to ensure diversity – racial, ethnic and gender diversity – it would still be possible to build that into the lottery. I would add diversity depending on the class, because that’s where we really failed.


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