Wednesday, May 9, 2007

College Admissions by Lottery of Qualified Applicants?

The Los Angeles Times recently published a very interesting op-ed article by Professor Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore. In it, he makes the highly provocative suggestion that selective colleges that have far more qualified applicants than slots use a lottery to determine which to admit.

He discusses how the idea of the "flat maximum" applies to college admissions: "when comparing the qualifications of people who are bunched up at the very top of the curve, the amount of inherent uncertainty in evaluating their credentials is larger than the measurable differences among candidates. Applied to college admissions, this principle implies that it is impossible to know which excellent student (or school) will be better than which other excellent student (or school). Uncertainty of evaluation makes the hair-splitting to distinguish among excellent students a waste of time; the degree of precision required exceeds the inherent reliability of the data."

Professor Schwartz also talks about the negative impact of the current system on students and their families. Not just the financial drain but also "playing it safe" when it comes to classes & extracurriculars, and valuing demonstrable achievement over learning for its own sake. At worst, the pressure can contribute to substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and depression.

When the top colleges now admit 10% or fewer of their applicants, it seems likely that a random selection from among say the top third of the admissions pool would be just as successful as those chosen by the current method. Admissions officers are not psychics but right now they are attempting to predict which 1550 SAT varsity captain valedictorian among many is going to outperform the others. Why not recognize that they are *ALL* qualified and let a computer decide which gets the prized thick envelope? It would ease the disappointment of a rejection letter to make it obvious that it was just the luck of the draw. For the most part, that's the case already because of the "flat maximum" but the current system makes rejections feel like personal ones.

I'm not saying that it would be a good idea to remove all subjectivity from college admissions. Standardized test scores and grades are not everything and admitting students solely based on some arbitrary formula would be terrible. Admissions officers should use "holistic" methods determine whether or not an applicant is qualified. Does the applicant have the potential to succeed at the particular school? For a sizable percentage, the answer will be "yes", and those will go into the lottery for final selection.

Sounds a whole lot fairer to me than the current process and it would go a long way in easing the admissions hysteria plaguing so many communities!

1 comment:

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