To think admission to elite colleges has been fair is a form of magical thinking. For that reason, I propose we select a quarter of the entering class at Cornell as well as at other colleges where many qualified applicants are rejected.
Given the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that stipulated that affirmative action is unconstitutional as well as increasing attention to how legacies, donors, athletes and the very wealthy are favored, we need to ask the following questions:
- How can the highly selective colleges achieve ethnic diversity in the face of the Supreme Court ruling?
- How can highly selective colleges achieve socio-economic class diversity, including first generation college students?
- Can colleges phrase the admission essays in such a way that we can get information necessary to have a diverse class?
- Will elite colleges consider legacies on the same footing as other applicants rather than make legacies — especially multiple legacies — a deciding factor? Will these colleges continue to favor the children of the wealthiest legacies who are major donors along with children from families with significant donor potential?
- Will the highly selective colleges continue to favor applicants from elite private secondary schools — and a small number of suburban public schools in wealthy areas — even though we know how much help some of them get not only from school counselors but also highly paid private advisors?
- How much preference should be given to elite school applicants whose athletic skills will successfully represent the school in winning conference championships?
- Will college limit favoritism to faculty/staff children who apply and who have benefited from a different kind of affirmative action?
The college application process has long been scrutinized for its fairness, particularly around alleged racial quotas, as demonstrated by the case against Harvard University on which the Supreme Court recently ruled. While I am fully supportive of Diversity, Inclusion and Equality, I am not comfortable knowing a much smaller percentage of qualified Asian students were admitted than apply, just as I am uncomfortable with the knowledge that the same was true for Jewish applicants at elite private colleges and universities in prior generations.
But at the most competitive colleges, where administrators are seeking a diverse class of brilliant, well-adjusted students whose later accomplishments — including economic success — will bring luster and funding to their college and universities, the very question of how to determine who is fit for admission needs rethinking.
The counterargument to a lottery is “Human judgment must prevail,” but that pretends that there is enough available evidence to make an informed judgment. At present I conjecture that three or more times the number of applicants whom we accept for admission have outstanding SAT and ACT scores — if they submit them at all — as well as the same number of AP courses with the same scores and, due to rampant grade inflation, virtually the same grades and similar recommendations. We cannot be sure how many hands wrote the application essay and if one or more of those hands were paid. If we don’t require SATS and ACTS, it is palpably discriminatory to use their absence as an indication of the student’s inferiority to those who do submit.
When I was writing my book How to Succeed in College and Beyond: The Art of Learning, I observed the Cornell admissions process in the College of Arts and Sciences for a few hours a week over the course of a number of years. Before my children applied here in the 1980s, I also volunteered to work on the committee one morning a week so as to learn how the process worked. I concluded that well-meaning people convinced themselves that they could make nuanced discriminations on what I regarded as little evidence.
One problem is the sheer number of applicants which due to the Common Application have grown exponentially. Even if we were to discuss every application for 15 minutes, we would need a larger admission staff. In fact, many applications thought to be from unqualified students were discussed in less than a minute. Lacking a staff to read extremely large numbers of applications, we now outsource applications to retired teachers and other alumni in the community.
As to alumni interviews, they are often conducted by close friends of the parents, especially in high income areas where a Cornell parent interviews the daughter of Brown parent whose son in turn is interviewed by the Cornell parent.
Right now, with available data so similar, it is difficult to make decisions. I have followed a few students in recent years and watched how equally elite schools made different decisions on the same person, with often the relatively less competitive college rejecting a student, when a more competitive school admitted the same student, probably because the legacy of multiple family members put the student over the line.
Sometimes the difference between acceptance and rejection is a compelling story such as a student having an unpaid internship volunteering to help physicians in Botswana, or sex workers in Thailand, or motherless elephants in Kenya. But do we think a young person from a modest working-class family who needs to earn money for college has such an opportunity?
Suppose that what follows was the first sentence of a college essay: “I am a Pacific Islander. My grandmother was born in a cave in Guam during the Japanese Occupation.” Now it happens this is, I believe, a true statement from a student I taught, admired and advised, but how, without a large staff of researchers, could admissions people validate such claims or indeed the ones mentioned previously.
Thus, I propose a lottery for a part of the class at Cornell and for each college and university that has far more qualified applicants than available spaces. After colleges take the truly exceptional applicants and eliminate those who would have a hard time in the field they chose to study, I would put some percentage of both the fall early decision and the spring regular decision into a lottery.
The elite universities and colleges might begin gradually with taking 25 per cent of the class from a lottery. We could even give students the choice of taking part in the lottery if they are not chosen in the first merit round. When mailing out acceptances, college need not tell those selected that way. Of course, the administration would have to measure those admitted in traditional ways against those admitted by lottery and see if student performance at college and beyond is any different.
If we believe that in a democracy higher education is a value and if acceptance at an elite college is a bridge to success, then a lottery may be the fairest way to create opportunity and possibility for qualified applicants who might otherwise be rejected by admissions people who see differences when there may be none.
Daniel R. Shwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is The Cornell Daily Sun’s 2023 visiting columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].
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