Admissions Lotteries v.s. Merit

John David

CounterCurrent: Week of 4/26


The COVID-19 pandemic will adversely affect college admissions and enrollment this year and beyond. High school graduates will be less likely to attend colleges and universities far from home after witnessing a nationwide lockdown. They will hesitate before risking extended separation from family, were a similar emergency to occur during their studies.

They may also opt for a cheaper, local option over the expensive, fancy, far-away school, knowing that they may not have the full “college experience” we currently see disrupted by distance learning. Some schools remain uncertain about reopening campus in fall 2020, and many others are quickly approaching insolvency due to the sudden loss of income. 

These same students may also have weaker applications than those of past years. Extracurricular activities have been cancelled, and high school grades may suffer from the abrupt shift to distance learning. Some who planned to matriculate may choose to take a gap year to wait out the storm.

It is clear that admissions, like every part of higher education, will have to adapt not only to the present crisis, but also to its future implications.

So how exactly should admissions change? Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute proposed a radical idea in a recent article: colleges should base their admissions on a random lottery. You read that right. All aspects of college admissions—grades, test scores, essays, interviews, extracurriculars, letters of recommendation—should be scrapped and replaced with random selection.

Hess argues that the current admissions system is broken and depends on metrics that are ambiguous, unreliable, and susceptible to malfeasance. These include standardized tests, the flaws of which were brought to light by the Varsity Blues cheating scandal. Another example is Harvard’s infamous “personality scores,” which are alleged to discriminate against Asian-American applicants. We at the National Association of Scholars agree with his premise—admissions requirements that do not measure student merit in a fair and clearly quantifiable way should be left behind.

But we disagree with Hess’s conclusion that merit should be discarded altogether. In this week’s featured article, NAS Director of Development Chris Kendall lays out the case for merit as the essential component of college admissions, while also pointing out the flaws in Hess’s proposal. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater, but rather move forward with admissions policies that target the most promising students through objective metrics. Besides, random lotteries are unlikely to solve the problems Hess thinks they would.

As Kendall writes: “Hess’s solution is not an alternative for those committed to the renewal, much less the survival, of the institutions that shape modern life and contemporary culture. Throwing in the towel on higher education admissions is not an answer.” Radical solutions such as these, while intriguing, are often ill-suited for real-world implementation. This proposal is best left on the shelf.


CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’  weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Administrative Associate John David. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Mattwide, Public Domain

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