Dylan R. Matthews, writing for the Harvard Crimson, argues that an admissions lottery system that chooses students randomly from a pool of qualified applicants is the only fair way to admit students. The current admissions process, Matthews says, creates a meaningless system in which students enroll in extracurricular activities and other application boosters just for the sake of doing so. To end the charade, setting a minimum SAT score and a minimum GPA is enough to ensure that only able students are admitted, and after that, students should just be selected randomly. This, he says, would be a start to correcting the advantage privileged students have.
But setting those minimum standards is more difficult than it might seem. What's a fair minimum SAT score? A lot of that depends on race and class. According to Century Foundation research, being socioeconomically disadavtanged amounts to a nearly 400-point drop in SAT scores. That explains much but not all of the racial gap in scores between black and white students, because race and poverty correlate so highly, but there's still a gap that persists despite income and can largely be explained by cultural biases in the test itself. GPA might be less problematic, but only if you don't account for the differences in academic rigor at different schools.
So, if colleges want to promote both diversity and fairness in the admissions process, they need to account for those differences, which makes the process more complicated. But even that would be problematic. It doesn't erase how skewed the applicant pool is; 90 percent of applicants to elite schools are middle- or upper-middle class. Low-income students of all races tend toward less selective schools than they could probably get into, and those schools are often less able, economically and structurally, to support struggling students than are more elite colleges, which care about keeping attrition rates low for ranking purposes. For a lot of reasons, lower-income students have fewer resources available to even go about selecting a good-fit school and getting into a proposed lottery in the first place.
If this erases the ridiculous arms race that privileged students engage in during their high school years just to have a shot at Harvard, then I would be for it. But let's be honest, it won't create a system we can truly call fair. Every time we set up a new standard that's supposed to capture merit and override the old system of network and class privileges (i.e., the SAT), the rich come up with new ways to reinstate those barriers (i.e., college test prep courses, which, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say I was paid to teach not too long ago). If Harvard starts admitting students by lottery, just watch the elite create a new Harvard that doesn't.
-- Monica Potts