It is Time to Consider Lottery Admissions in Universities

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What did you need to do to get into college? Chances are that most of you submitted your grades, wrote a motivation letter and/or a CV, and did an interview or two. Given that this type of admissions process is so widespread, it is easy to assume that it must be the best. I believe that this assumption is wrong. There is a better way, and it is to select applicants by lottery.

There are potentially many ways to do this, but in this article, lottery selection will refer to the following process. Candidates who meet certain grade requirements would have their names shortlisted and these would be inputted into a random selection programme. The students the programme selected would be admitted, and the rest would be rejected. It seems absurd at first glance, but after giving the matter some thought it will become clear that this process holds many advantages over the current system.

Firstly, selecting students by lottery is superior because it would lower costs. In the current system, resources must be expended reading through a candidate’s essays and CVs. Time is also wasted during the interview process. If candidates were selected by lottery, all that would be required would be a computer. It might not even be necessary to manually input names as an algorithm could easily be written to do that.

Of course, lower costs alone are not enough to prove that students should be admitted by lottery. Nobody would argue that it would be acceptable to lower academic standards just because it’s cheaper. However, lottery selection does not do that. The principle of the flat maximum suggests that when it comes to college admission, which is an uncertain situation in terms of a student’s potential, it becomes very difficult to decide which talented students are the best. This implies that admissions processes aimed at doing this will not be very accurate in the first place. Given that candidates meet certain grade requirements, lotteries should therefore be around as accurate as interviews and motivation letters, at least in terms of selecting the most academically able students. Furthermore, we can infer that lotteries do not lower academic standards from the fact that some prestigious universities have done this without negative impacts. Leeds Metropolitan University used lottery admissions for its most competitive programmes, as did Huddersfield University, with the latter claiming it had been doing so for years. The fact that elite universities (who depend on achieving high academic standards) are willing to use lottery admissions strongly suggests that students chosen in this manner are no less qualified. 

Even the fact that lottery admissions don’t lower academic standards isn’t enough to claim that this process is better. Most people believe in fairness and therefore lottery admissions cannot be accepted unless they conform to this ideal. At first glance, the randomness inherent in the process gives it the appearance of being unjust, but it could also be argued that it is that same randomness that makes lottery admissions fairer than the current system. This is because interviews, motivation letters, and CVs measure preparedness at least as much as they do potential. A student who has assembled a carefully curated CV, practiced interviews, and had expert guidance on how to write motivation letters/personal essays will clearly have an advantage over an equally talented student who has not done so. Even more damningly, high levels of preparedness can be the result of wealth. The extent to which high-school students can engage in extracurricular activities to put on their CV is strongly influenced by their socioeconomic status as well as by the opportunities offered by their school. Similarly, some students have the luxury of being intensively coached by private tutors who know what schools are looking to find in an interview, whereas others receive little guidance. Lotteries, on the other hand, don’t measure either preparedness or potential. They don’t measure anything, because they’re random. All students who have the potential to thrive in the course (as specified by the minimum grade requirements) would have an equal chance of being selected.

However, while lottery admissions have numerous advantages, they also have unique drawbacks. There is evidence that lottery admissions can have negative psychological effects, resulting in a sense of powerlessness in those submitted to it. When McMaster’s medical school used a lottery process during the pandemic, students complained about how the process had taken away their agency. As one candidate put it, they felt like they were “flipping a coin for heads and tails to say if 4+ years of my life were worth it”. Despite assurances by the school that everybody was similarly talented and that they were sure the lottery was the fairest option, the complaints kept coming in. Students felt as though they’d lost control over their lives. 

Other questions must also be addressed if lottery systems are to take the well-being of all students into account. In theory, lottery admissions could increase diversity as everyone who meets minimum requirements would have an equal chance of being selected. A study investigating what would happen in practice simulated lotteries using criteria of GPA, SAT, and GPA + SAT. The diversity of the class increased in only one simulation, with dramatic consequences for diversity being found in many of the others. For example, the criteria of GPA + SAT could lead to classes being composed of only 2 – 4% Black and Latinx students, while the GPA only condition could lead to massive gender inequality, with only around a third of students being male. This shows us that criteria for lottery admissions must be chosen very carefully, or they risk setting universities back decades when it comes to diversity. 

Lottery admissions do not lower academic standards. They’re also arguably more cost-effective and fair than the traditional interviews, CVs, and personal essays approach. Lottery systems also have their own unique problems to address. They can sometimes make students feel as though they’ve lost control of their future. The question of how to choose criteria so as to maintain or boost diversity is also very pressing. However, I believe that lottery admissions are still worth considering. After all, we’ll never be able to fix their most pressing issues if we never give these systems the serious consideration they deserve.

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