Why College Should Become A Lottery

Barry Schwartz, a psychologist at UC-Berkeley and Swarthmore, does not think much of the college admissions process. In a new paper, he tells a story about a friend who spent an afternoon with a high-school student. His friend was impressed by the student and, for the first time in thirty years of teaching, decided to send a note to the dean of admissions. Despite the note, the student did not get in. Schwartz describes what happened next:

“Curious, my friend asked the dean why. ‘No reason,’ said the dean. ‘No reason?,’ replied my friend, somewhat incredulous. ‘Yes, no reason. I can’t tell you how many applicants we reject for no reason.’”

For Schwartz, such stories are a sign of a broken system. Although colleges pretend to be paragons of meritocracy, their selection methods are rife with randomness. “Despite their very best efforts to make the selection process rational and reasonable, admissions people are, in effect, running a lottery,” Schwartz writes. “To get into Harvard (or Stanford, or Yale, or Swarthmore), you need to be good...and you need to be lucky.”

Schwartz devotes much of his article to the severe negative consequences inflicted by this capricious selection process. He begins by lamenting the ways in which it discourages students from experimenting, both inside and outside the classroom. Because teenagers are so terrified of failure—Harvard requires perfection!—they refuse to take classes that might end with the crushing disappointment of a B+. Over time, this can lead to high-school students that “may look better than ever before” but are probably learning less.  

But wait: it gets worse. Much worse. Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, has spent the last several years documenting the emotional toll of the college competition on upper-middle class children. Although these affluent kids lead enviable lives on paper—they have educated white-collar parents, high test scores and attend elite high-schools—they are roughly twice as likely to suffer from the symptoms of depression and anxiety than the national average. They are also far more likely to have eating disorders and meet the diagnostic criteria for substance abuse.  

There are, of course, countless variables driving this epidemic of mental issues among affluent teenagers. (Maybe it’s Snapchat’s fault? Or a side-effect of helicopter parenting?) However, Luthar argues that one of the main causes is what she calls the “pressure to achieve.” The problem with the pressure is that it’s a double-edged sword. If a student’s achievements fall short, then he feels inadequate. However, even if a student gets straight As, she probably still lives in what Luthar calls “a state of fear of not achieving.” Over time, that chronic sense of fear can lead to anxiety disorders and depression; kids are burned out on stress before they even leave their childhood homes. 

How can we fix this competitive morass? Schwartz offers a provocative solution. (In an email, he observes that he first offered this proposal a decade ago. In the years since, it’s only gotten more necessary.) The first phase of his plan involves filtering applicants using the same academic standards currently in place. Schwartz estimates that these standards—GPA, SAT scores, extracurricular activities, etc.—could cut the applicant pool by up to two-thirds. But here’s the crucial twist: after this initial culling, all of the acceptable students would be entered into an admissions lottery. The winners would be drawn at random.

Such a lottery system, Schwartz writes, would offer multiple advantages over our current fake meritocracy. For one thing, it would be much less stressful for teenagers to strive to be “good enough” rather than the best; high-achieving students wouldn’t have to be the highest achieving. This, in turn, would “free students up to do the things they were really passionate about.” Instead of chasing extrinsic rewards—does Stanford need an oboe player?—adolescents would be free to follow their sense of intrinsic motivation.* By making selective colleges less selective, Schwartz says, they can get happier and more well-rounded students.

The hybrid lottery system would also force colleges to be more transparent about their selection methods. Right now, the admissions process is a black box; such secrecy is what allows colleges to accept legacies and reject otherwise qualified students for no particular reason. However, if the schools were forced to define their lottery cut-off, they would have to reflect on the measurements that actually predict academic success. And this doesn’t mean the criteria must be quantitative. As Schwartz notes, “criteria for ‘good enough’ can be sufficiently flexible that applicants who are athletes, violinists, minorities, or from Alaska get ‘credit’ for these characteristics,” just as in the current system.

The most obvious objection to Schwartz’s lottery system is ethical. For many people, it just seems wrong to base a major life decision on a roll of the dice. But here’s the thing: the college application process is already a crapshoot. (The differences used to differentiate applicants—say, 10 points on the SAT—are often smaller than the amount of error in the assessments.) By making the lottery explicit, students and schools would at least be forced to have a candid conversation about the role of luck in life. Instead of taking full credit for our admission, or blaming ourselves for our rejection, we’d admit that much of success is random chance and pure contingency. Perhaps, Schwartz writes, this might make students a little “more empathic when they encounter people who may be just as deserving as they are, but less lucky.”

Schwartz is best known for his research on the pitfalls of the maximizing decision-making strategy, in which people obsess over finding the best possible alternative. The problem with this approach, Schwartz and colleagues have repeatedly found, is that it ends up making us miserable. Instead of being satisfied with a perfectly acceptable option, we get stressed about finding a better one. And then, once we make a choice, studies show that maximizers end up drenched in regret, fixated on their foregone options. We’re trained to be maximizers by consumer culture—who wants to settle for the second best laundry detergent?—but it’s usually a shortcut to a sad life.

This new paper extends the maximizing critique to higher-education. In Schwartz’s telling, the college application process is a particularly powerful example of how the maximizing approach can lead us astray. Given the inherent uncertainty of matching students and colleges, Schwartz argues that it’s foolish to try to find the ideal school. Rather, we should practice an approach that Herbert Simon called satisficing, in which we search for colleges that are good enough. After all, the evidence suggests we can be equally happy at a multitude of places. 

This, perhaps, is the greatest virtue of the lottery proposal: by making it impossible for students to act like maximizers—chance chooses for them—they will be given a life lesson in the power of satisficing. Instead of wasting their dreams on a dream school, they should follow their adolescent passions and embrace the chanciness of life. You can’t always get exactly what you want. But if you practice satisficing, you just might get what you need.

*The danger of replacing intrinsic motivation with extrinsic rewards was first demonstrated in a classic study of preschoolers. Some of the young children were told they would get a reward for drawing with pens. You might think this would encourage the kids to draw even more. It didn’t. Instead, those toddlers given an “expected reward” were less likely to use the pens in the future. (And when they did use the pens, they spent less time drawing.) The extrinsic rewards, said the scientists, had turned “play into work.”

Schwartz, Barry (2016) “Why Selective Colleges Should Become Less Selective—And Get Better Students,” Capitalism and Society: Vol. 11: Iss. 2.