School Lottery?

Posted by on Apr 4, 2019 in Education
Ivy-covered wall

Credit: Shutterstock/Alison Hancock

Last week, btw brought you the story of a recent college admissions scandal: fifty wealthy (some of them celebrity) parents who downright cheated to get their children admitted to prestigious U.S. universities. This has led to a nationwide conversation about who gets into the “good” colleges and who doesn’t, and how we can do a better job of leveling the playing field. One possibility that has come out of this is the suggestion of a lottery system. But is this fair? Here, btw takes a closer look at both sides of the lottery argument.

How It Works

The lottery (in concept at least) is as simple as it sounds: essentially, anyone with a high school degree, a minimum SAT/ACT score, and/or a minimum GPA is eligible to enter, and colleges pull names at random.

The Advantages

What a lot of people like about this idea is that it truly democratizes college education. As things stand currently, wealthy students have huge advantages over economically-challenged ones when it comes to admissions. Not only can many students not afford to pay the astronomically high rate of tuition (not to mention room and board) at our nation’s most prestigious schools, but because poorer students often come from school districts without as many resources, they may not perform as well on standardized tests as their wealthier counterparts. Economically-advantaged students can afford to take standardized tests multiple times. They can also afford expensive test prep courses, tutors, and extracurricular opportunities–all of which puts them unfairly ahead.

A lottery system would also put an end to a corrupt legacy system, whereby students have a greater chance of being admitted to a university if their parent or grandparent attended, perpetuating the cycle of wealth and advantage.

The Disadvantages

Imagine working hard throughout four years of high school to get into your dream college, only to find your name wasn’t pulled. This is the main disadvantage of a lottery system: it takes merit completely out of the equation. This could really damage the motivation of high school students to succeed because as long as they achieve a minimum GPA, there is no reason to strive for excellent performance. The same goes for extracurricular activities: if colleges no longer care, then participation in sports, band, school plays, and volunteer groups would likely drop.

Advocates of a lottery system, however, argue that the American college admissions system is currently so skewed toward the wealthy that it’s not based on merit anyway: just because a student gets excellent grades and performs well in high school doesn’t mean that he or she will be able to afford to go to one of the best colleges (or to any college, for that matter).

But Would It Work?

Theoretically, yes. Many U.S. school districts currently use pure lottery systems to admit students fairly. Also, several other countries have admissions processes that are far more democratic than ours, though most are not “true” lotteries. Here in the U.S., medical students undergo a process called The Match, which is similar: prospective students list the medical schools they would like to attend, medical schools list the students they are interested in, and an algorithm matches them up. While this system is obviously still based on merit, it’s one possibility for how the process might work.

What Do You Think? Would you be in favor of switching college admissions to a lottery system? Why or why not?