A Question of Fairness: College and University Admissions, Part II

Nov 23, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

I want to pose a problem of fairness to you that I pose to my own students. It is related to how colleges and universities that are fortunate enough to be highly selective admit their students. As I noted in my prior posting, Ivy League universities and other similarly high quality seats of higher learning, like MIT, Cal Tech, the University of Chicago, as well as the distinguished state universities, like those in California, Michigan, Wisconsin, receive far more applicants than they can possibly accept. The Ivy League turns down, you will recall, about 90 percent of its applicants. Remember as well that those who apply are highly "self-selected," meaning that academically weaker students don't even consider applying. The same is true for the great liberal arts colleges. As I suggested in my last posting, this tends to eliminate from the pool those extraordinarily talented and interesting, if a bit quirky or lopsided students who may go on to make the most innovative and lasting contributions to our society after they've finished college.

This number of applicants and their quality presents a dilemma. Who should be admitted and on what basis? Again, in the previous posting I outlined some of the factors that go into the decisions using the current system. However, is that the fairest way to admit students to these schools? Let me pose an alternative and ask you to decide which one you would choose and why.

The first is easy. We would admit students in exactly the same way as they are now and assume that we live in, as Dr. Pangloss says in Voltaire's Candide, "the best of all possible worlds."1 But the status quo perpetuates the belief that there are real, meaningful differences among hundreds, if not thousands, of these applicants. It also assumes that whether or not an individual is admitted is not a result of the "luck of the reviewer draw," that is which two admissions officers happen to read your application, and what they particularly value - to say nothing about whether they had an upset stomach at the time they were reading your application. That is a difficult set of assumptions to accept, I believe.

Let's consider the university I know best, Columbia and its undergraduate college, Columbia College. We know that Columbia now receives more than 20,000 applicants for a total of perhaps 1,200 positions in the freshman class. In order for admissions officers to fill out the class, they have to accept about 1,700 students, because some who they admit will choose to go to another school that has also admitted them. So, roughly 92 percent of the applicants are going to receive disappointing letters when the time for decision is at hand.

Suppose I offer you an alternative to the current way of doing things. Say, we assume that we had no early decisions at Columbia and all students typically found out their fate in early April. Further suppose, that Columbia faces the fact that there really are at least 5,000 of these 20,000 students who are truly extraordinary in almost any way. They are surely smart enough to benefit from the Columbia education; they could contribute mightily to the broader educational environment of the University by displaying their multiple talents; and they would make the University proud of them as graduates. The pool of 5,000 plus are made up of every racial, ethnic, and religious group; they have already begun interesting "careers" with their work in the sciences, arts, public service, and humanities. They have worked seriously for the public good even while having to deal with the awful constraints of high school. It is, in short, a spectacular group of 5,000. Suppose, then, that in January of the senior year, Columbia wrote a letter to each of these 5,000 students and its content went something like this:

"Dear Lydia,

Congratulations! You have demonstrated in your years prior to college and in your application and achievements a remarkable set of abilities and talents. You are fully qualified for admission to Columbia College. We write to tell you so and to tell you that we believe that you are a truly remarkable person with a great future ahead of you. There is no doubt in our mind that you are fully capable of handling the rigorous Columbia College curriculum.

Unfortunately, you are one of 5,000 out of 20,000 applicants who are roughly equally qualified and we have accommodations for only 1,200 students as freshman at Columbia next year. Therefore, we have decided that the fairest way to admit students into the class this coming fall is to do so through a lottery system. Your name, along with the other roughly 5,000 highly qualified applicants, will be part of that lottery. The class will be selected through a highly developed scheme of random selection. We are sorry that we must choose the class this way, but frankly there are so many more extraordinary students than we have room for, that we can see no fairer way of selection. In fact, it would be essentially impossible (and misleading) to rank order each of you among this highly qualified group.

In early April you will hear from us about the results of the random selection process. We wish you good luck and we know that if you are not selected through this method, you will continue your education at another exceptionally fine school.

Dean of Admissions
Columbia College"

Which of the two systems of admissions do you find "fairer" for the applicants? Would the lottery system be better than the one currently in use, which creates the illusion that there is an "in the sight of God" ranking of applicants from 1 to 20,000 plus? Would it be better for the university or college? Which one would you endorse and what are the reasons for your choice?

1Although this phrase is most often associated with Dr. Pangloss in Candide, the extraordinary philosopher Gottfried Leibniz coined it in 1710.