Send all admissions officers back to college
After another spring in which millions of American children endured the anguish of finding out whether their chosen colleges had accepted them, experts once again lament the absurdity and social ills of the process. Why should a cabal of admissions officers have so much hold on the self-esteem of high school students and their access to the elite?
Let me offer a drastic solution: fire officials and use random selection instead.
I am not the first to suggest this. The progressive New America Foundation even incorporated the idea – specifically, adopting lottery admissions to highly selective universities – into its plan to achieve greater diversity in higher education. There might be a weak notion of who is “qualified” – say, a high school diploma and a minimum grade point average. Beyond that, the selection would be publicly and obviously random. Regardless of optional standardized tests. If you show interest, your name goes in a big hat.
One downside is that applications to the more selective colleges would skyrocket, pushing acceptance rates down and leaving the “strongest” applicants with little chance of entering the schools of their choice. Children who struggled to get perfect grades, who spent their high school years getting really good at obscure but in-demand sports, heirlooms and big donor offspring, would lose their benefits.
Having said that, the positives would be immense. Preferences for inheritances, for sports admissions, for children whose parents can afford private tutoring to improve grades and test scores – all of these contribute powerfully to inequality. The mere qualification standard would relieve students of the pressure to conform to the current definition of the ideal candidate. They would be free to become children again, smoke weed and get laid between reading Dostoyevsky and writing bad poems. Or practice the sports and disciplines that really interest them.
But what if the children who entered could not afford to attend? What if colleges couldn’t bring in enough money to pay all of their administrators and maintain all of their cafeterias and climbing walls? Some savings may be in order. On the one hand, leaving admissions to the random draw would avoid the need for the bloated departments that are currently managing the process.
Better yet, random selection would immediately increase the diversity that colleges say they seek to achieve. Colleges would not have to worry about tackling racial discrimination allegations in the Supreme Court, because by construction, the admissions process would be non-discriminatory. No more “soft” criteria. No more biased testing. Just blind chance.
If some schools did and others didn’t, the result could be a large, nation-wide experiment to test the idea that – as recent research suggests – diversity adds value. The gold standard for testing things is to randomly sample two groups, one being subject to the treatment or policy under study and the other serving as a control. I’m sure some private schools would be happy to play the latter role, insisting on sticking to the old admissions system.
If experience shows that diversity is better and that random selection offers, higher education institutions would have the choice: to get rid of the old system, or to admit that they are really perpetuating the privilege. wealth, and that all their admissions talk about inclusion is ornamental.
Cathy O’Neil is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She’s a mathematician who has worked as a professor, hedge fund analyst, and data scientist. She founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company, and is the author of “Weapons of Math Destruction”.