OP-ED: College Admissions Shouldn’t be a Crapshoot


Nora Fellas, Contributor

In his thought-provoking new book, The Tyranny of Merit, “Rock Star Moralist” and esteemed Harvard Professor Michael J. Sandel challenges the conventional wisdom that a meritocratic society is fair, and proposes, as one solution, that elite colleges should admit students by lottery. Professor Sandel, with all due respect, I went through the college admissions process last year and I disagree with your proposal. You correctly highlight the inequities in the current admissions process adopted by elite colleges, as reflected in the disproportionate number of students from affluent households that are admitted. But, in my opinion, your proposed lottery solution is flawed because it tries to address indirectly, through a random process, unfairness that should be tackled head-on.

Sandel’s challenge to the ideal of meritocracy is likely to strike many readers as counterintuitive: what could be wrong with distributing income and wealth, or places at elite colleges, on the basis of people’s natural talents and hard work? But, as Sandel convincingly argues, meritocracy is objectionable for two main reasons. First, the fact that people may possess certain natural talents (whether intelligence or athletic ability or even ambition) that the market, or colleges, happen to prize at a particular moment in time is arbitrary from a moral point of view – the result of a genetic or societal lottery. Second, Sandel argues that an excessive focus on meritocracy has had a corrosive effect on society by dividing us: into winners – who, blinded by hubris, come to believe that they deserve their success, that they made it on their own; and losers – who, stung by humiliation, come to believe that they supposedly deserve their place at the bottom, that they have no one to blame but themselves. Sandel attributes the recent growth of populism – manifested by the election of Donald Trump and Brexit – to the resentment of those who feel as though they have been left behind.

Central to the problematic aspects of meritocracy, according to Sandel, is the valorization of elite colleges and the college admissions process itself. While colleges promise upward social mobility by appearing to base admissions decisions on “merit,” in reality, as Sandel correctly points out, the vast majority of students at most selective colleges come from affluent backgrounds. At Princeton and Yale, there are more students from the top 1 percent of the country than from the bottom 60 percent, and as of 2017, more than 20 percent of Vanderbilt students came from the top 1 percent. 

Sandel’s criticism of the college admissions process is not focused solely on the illegal means deployed by some wealthy parents to ensure their children are admitted to elite colleges, highlighted by last year’s scandal. Rather it is primarily directed at the legal means by which privilege gets passed from one generation to the next. For example, Sandel notes that SAT scores — a supposedly neutral measure of merit — are highly correlated with wealth. Affluent parents are able to provide their children advantages in the college admissions process, like funding SAT prep courses and college consultants and through large donations to colleges and  inter-generational opportunity hoarding that gives their children “legacy” status.

But Sandel does not fault the college admissions process simply because it’s unfair, he also criticizes it for the enormous stress it places on high-school students seeking admission to increasingly more selective elite colleges and the hubristic attitudes it inspires among those selected to attend. One of the main changes Sandel has observed in his students since he started teaching at Harvard in 1980 is their embrace of the notion that they made it on their own, an attitude that Sandel believes fails to take into account the role of fortune, whether someone happened to born into affluent or humble circumstances, and the degree to which individual success owes much to others and the fortuitous circumstances of birth.

Sandel is right to highlight these problematic features of the college admissions process, but, in my view, his solution is flawed. He proposes that college admissions officers create “a lottery of the qualified”  by removing those applicants unlikely to succeed at their universities and then choosing by lottery whom to admit from the remainder. Ethnic, geographical and other diversity considerations could be accounted for by assigning certain applicants more than one lottery ticket.

But consider this: a highly-qualified applicant from a modest background who worked hard in high school and who would easily be admitted into the most selective colleges under our current system, could, in theory, be rejected under the system Sandel proposes. That can’t be fair.

Reading Sandel’s book reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Booksmart (2019), a teen comedy that follows two “nerdy” girls and their quest to make peace with their high school experience. The action begins when one of the girls, Molly, who is a high school senior bound for Yale and a stereotypical overachiever (she has a fake ID to get into her town’s college library) finds out that her hyperbolically unmotivated and stereotypical party-going peers are also bound for elite institutions. Molly is incensed when she learns this, finding it unfair that she, who worked so hard, ended up no better off than her peers who spent high school partying. With a 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie resonated with teenagers because it played into our cultural expectations that hard work should be rewarded, and putting in late hours at the library should count for something. Of course, Booksmart may be unrealistic, but the idea of a lottery system inspires in me the same visceral reaction to its unfairness as Molly’s discovery that all her hard work had made no difference.

The fundamental flaw with Sandel’s lottery proposal is that it seeks to address through a process of random selection inequities that are best addressed directly. One major source of injustice in the college admissions process is the preference given to legacies and children of big donors. Sandel acknowledges this, pointing out that, at many top schools, legacy students are five or six times more likely to be admitted. Nearly 15 percent of Vanderbilt’s class of 2023 are legacy students. While Sandel argues that, ideally, colleges should eliminate legacy-admissions and favoritism for children of big donors, he also accepts that such factors are not ruled out by his lottery proposal. Colleges could still choose to favor legacies or children of big donors by giving them extra lottery tickets, just as they could to promote diversity.

At Harvard, 43 percent of white students in the class of 2023 had either a legacy, athletic, or another similar advantage, and 75 percent of those students would have been rejected without those advantages. It should be noted that legacy was first designed to keep colleges white and limit the admission of Jewish and other minority students, and the reality is that today, legacy programs mostly benefit white students. The best solution to this inequity is to address it at its root. If the students in Harvard’s class of 2023 who were admitted through special preference hadn’t been, those spots could have been given to low-income, minority, or other deserving students to foster social mobility.

In fact, because they possess greater resources, elite colleges are often in the best position to promote social mobility by providing financial assistance to low-income students. According to Prepscholar, a popular college admissions advice publication: “It’s usually the top schools that are committed to and able to meet 100 percent of their students’ financial needs.” Indeed, only 22 schools, including Vanderbilt, currently can boast this feat, and they all are elite colleges. The result is to make many elite institutions the most affordable college option for many high-achieving, low income students.

Those who support colleges favoring legacies and children from wealthy households argue that the result is to enlarge endowments, which, in turn, can be used for financial aid for low-income students. While that may sound appealing in theory, in reality, it is not clear that legacy-related alumni donations happen enough to make a difference in assisting low-income students. According to an analysis of the top 100 colleges, there is “no statistically significant evidence” that legacy preference encourages alumni donations. Moreover, favoring legacies and children of affluent donors deprives other more qualified students of access to the positions given to those favored. As Sandel points out, colleges would have to give five or even six lottery tickets to each legacy in order to replicate their current rate of admission, which only serves to highlight just how much of an advantage legacies have over other applicants.

While I went through the pain and tears of the college process last year, spending my summer hunched over the Princeton Review SAT Practice book, writing seven drafts of my Common Application essay, and accumulating over 50 hours of extracurricular activities per week, I don’t think the hard work required by the process is all bad.

I agree that it creates enormous stress, but, still, having my admissions prospects as a motivator when I didn’t want to study for another test was meaningful. And while I don’t think high schoolers should sign up for APs and time-consuming extracurriculars solely to impress their future admissions officer, I can say that, without the external pressure of getting into college, I probably wouldn’t have taken a class like AP Calculus, which didn’t immediately pique my interest, or gotten out of my comfort zone and joined Model UN, both of which became fulfilling endeavors.

Professor Sandel, I agree with you that the system is deeply flawed. But the solution to the inequity and hubris can’t be to leave things to a lottery. Compensating for the effects of the genetic or societal lottery by instituting yet another one is itself unjust. We can fight the inequity in college admissions by giving less weight to achievements that are a proxy for wealth, like SAT scores, and eliminating special preference to legacies and children of donors.

And, as you yourself highlight, Professor Sandel, we can resist hubris by constantly reminding ourselves that any success we may achieve is largely the result of our good fortune to be born in a society that happens to value our talents, and that we are indebted to many others – our teachers, parents, and peers – for any success we achieve and that, even though some start with more than others, none of us ever truly makes it on our own.