The Arizona Desert Lamp

Random-Selection Admissions

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 24 April 2009

RouletteTests don’t seem to be effective, at least at NYU:

Starting next year, New York University will no longer require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores, the university announced today. NYU is not going “test-optional,” however. The university will continue to require all applicants to send scores from standardized exams, but the students will have more options.

. . .

According to the announcement, NYU has received fewer and fewer applications from students with lower SAT scores in recent years (admitted applicants average just below 1400). “We believe that the current level of our SAT scores … may be discouraging applicants with lower scores from applying; this may include students who might have some remarkable talents that we would welcome, but whose SAT score is not necessarily indicative of their ability to be successful at NYU.”

But neither do holistics:

The trick is that holistic assessment is often unreliable, Scott Highhouse said here this morning at Wake Forest University’s “Rethinking Admissions” conference. Mr. Highhouse, a professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Bowling Green State University, cautioned admissions professionals about the limits of holistic evaluations, such as the personal interviews that Wake Forest built into its application process this year.

To make his point, Mr. Highhouse cited several studies that undermine the notion that employers can reliably predict the success of workers they hire. “People just aren’t very predictable,” he said.

. . .

Mr. Highhouse said he was not necessarily speaking for or against the use of standardized measures, such as the SAT, in admissions. After all, he knew his audience: The subtitle of his presentation was “Don’t Shoot the Messenger.”

Why not go to a straight lottery? This is done to a great deal of success at the alternative Community High School in my hometown, and there are other examples at high schools around the country.

The set-up for a college is very similar, and rather simple – set a low threshold that students must pass to qualify for the lottery. Each person that qualifies will be attached to a number; when the admissions period has passed, a random number generator will create a list. If you want to differentiate even more between students (and place a higher emphasis on test scores), you can assign them to quintiles, granting students in the top quintile five numbers (increasing their odds), and so on all the way down. Participants that make the first cutoff on the list will be sent acceptance letters, and everyone else will be put on the waiting list (ideally, with information about where s/he stands). As students opt for other schools, you cross their names and move on to the next person on the list.

Does it seem unfair? Naturally, but in fact it’s more fair than the current process. One must remember that at many of these schools, all but a slim majority of students are extremely qualified. The admissions process has in effect come down to determining whether the Lost Boy with a 4.0 GPA and his own start-up company or the orphan-turned-class-president with a perfect ACT score and a charity for abandoned animals – how can you make an argument for or against either of these candidates?

Very easily, in fact – “What do we need? Where do we stand on diversity? What state are they from? Are they legacies?” And so we get quotes like these, in the Daily Beast:

“My father, a successful businessman, has always been a major donor at his Ivy League college. I know when I got in, some money exchanged hands—I didn’t have the grades. Well, plus the wing of science labs named for my family… But it wasn’t that easy with my nieces and nephews. Now, this year, he’s been virtually guaranteed admission for my 6-year-old for any check at all.”—Ivy League alumnus

. . .

“I’m embarrassed to say it, but I worry we’re letting kids in this year we wouldn’t have in the past. My best guess is that there’s a promise out there for a few million dollars in donations that will suddenly show up when the admissions letters go out. At least I hope so.”— A Boston college-admissions officer

The current system is ripe for gaming, and this Great Game has spurred a cottage industry of snake-oil salesmen, each promising that they have the secret that will get your kid into that top school. Yet with Dame Fortune, there are no secrets – like her sister, she’s blind and can’t see the money and ludicrous essays tossed at her feet. Going to random selection is inherently race-blind, but just as importantly it is legacy-blind — increasing donations won’t change your child’s odds one whit. This is also why such a system will never be adopted.

It would be nice, though, to see at least one school adopt the system for a period of time, and compare the staff-determined classes versus their lottery-determined counterparts. I suspect that there would be no significant difference between the two.

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One Response

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  1. mattstyer said, on 26 April 2009 at 1:44 pm

    Interesting post, articles and lottery idea. I’d like to see more research, for one, and two, what exactly measures of success and potential are. From one of the articles, Wake Forest seem to be very happy with the interviews they’re doing because “they know the kids better than any other class.” Building a certain kind of culture and person is a big thing for a lot of colleges, and that’d be harder to do with a lottery system.


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