Hats off to Professor Dalton Conley for his Aug. 13 op-ed in The Washington Post advocating a lottery for admission to Princeton University and other elite colleges! I suppose that, as a sociology professor, he comes to the issue from that discipline. My major at Princeton was economics, and I taught a graduate seminar in economics for 10 semesters between 2001 and 2009 at leading universities in Washington, D.C. 

During this period, drawing on items in PAW, I became increasingly bothered by the admissions process at the University. Not only did it seem to be unfair to many qualified applicants, it also seemed unscientific from an economics perspective. The process appeared to be premised on a highly questionable ability to predict how individual applicants would perform as students and beyond. I concluded that a lottery system — along the lines sketched out by Professor Conley — would be both more fair and more scientific.

Following are excerpts from Professor Dalton Conley’s op-ed, reprinted with permission of The Washington Post. For the full text, go to https://wapo.st/2PaJr3k.

The public is busy arguing over affirmative action and whether Asian Americans are discriminated against in Harvard University admissions, and whether preferences based on “legacy” alumni connections, athletic skills, or other attributes should continue. But sociologists and economists are trying to assess whether all this fuss even matters. In other words, what is the value of going to a highly selective school such as Harvard, Yale, or Princeton? There’s one sure way to resolve both these debates: a lottery.

Universities would set minimum standards of admission, considering a mix of criteria such as SAT scores, class rank, personal essay, extracurricular activities, and challenges such as overcoming economic hardship. The final selection would be done purely by lottery. If schools wanted to weight certain factors for diversity purposes, they could do it at the drawing stage.

In the same way that medical residency programs and newly minted doctors sort each other out, the applicants would order their college preferences in advance and be matched to their top-choice school that drew their name in its lottery. 

Such a system would make explicit what most of us already know: There’s a huge amount of randomness in elite-college admissions, which stirs a corresponding suspicion about how the process might be skewed. Moreover, a lottery system would be a boon to social scientists, since it would approximate an experiment to determine the actual value-added of a particular school. We could compare the career outcomes of students who went to one school vs. another school based on the straws they drew.

Luck has no place in America’s Horatio Alger national myth, but admissions to the country’s elite universities is no meritocracy. Maybe it’s time to gamble on a little randomness. 

Lex Rieffel ’63
Washington, D.C.