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The Lottery

The only fair way to admit people to Harvard is to randomize admissions

By Dylan R. Matthews

As The Crimson reported on Friday, Harvard College is conducting a review of its abandonment of early admissions. While the admissions department is to be commended for thoughtfully evaluating its own policies, I wish it would conduct a more comprehensive review of Harvard’s admissions process. Indeed, I wish it would consider abandoning the admissions process altogether in favor of a randomized lottery.

The best way to do this would be in conjunction with other universities. Chad Adelman of the think tank Education Sector has proposed adopting the system used to match medical residents to hospitals. 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. By placing a premium on students who go above and beyond in extracurricular realms, Harvard has attracted a number of truly incredible people but has also encouraged a high school arms race wherein kids cram their schedules with activities in an attempt to attract admissions officers.

By selecting for this kind of behavior, the admissions process doesn’t encourage real excellence, but, to use the novelist Walter Kirn’s term from his hilarious book and essay “Lost in the Meritocracy,” “aptitude for showing aptitude.” This may well be of use in students’ careers after college, but it is orthogonal if not antithetical to the goals of a liberal arts education.

But let us accept for a second that the system is not wholly corrupted and that there is a connection between “excellence” in the admissions context and real excellence or that such a connection can at least be achieved within a traditional admissions process. Even granting all that, why should the richest university in the world be devoting its resources to educating students who are already “excellent?”

By virtue of being the kind of students Harvard admits, people who go here already have a huge leg-up in life. A student admitted because of her preternatural brilliance would have been rewarded for that anyway. So, too, for a student with an extraordinary work ethic or an exceptional talent for the arts. Given that these students have so much going for them already, why should Harvard devote its resources to helping them even more?

There is some question as to whether Harvard helps the kinds of students it admits or whether it simply admits the kinds of students who tend to succeed anyway. The researchers Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale have found that lifetime earnings for elite college graduates are significantly higher than for non-elite graduates. However, when one compares students at elite colleges to ones who were admitted but did not attend, the effect disappears.

Obviously, there is more to a successful life than making money, but the broader point remains. Harvard could probably do more good for students who are not already gifted than for those who are. Given that, why is the system biased toward students who benefit less?

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.”

Harvard needs to think seriously as a community about whether we are comfortable entrenching inequalities resulting from pure luck. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel once famously noted, “When racial and sexual injustice have been reduced, we shall still be left with the great injustice of the smart and the dumb.” If we want to correct this injustice just as we struggle to correct racial and sexual injustices, then lottery-based admissions is a good place to start.

Dylan R. Matthews ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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