The lottery is an interesting concept. Inherently it’s a luck based system designed around selling many people the chance to win one of the few rewards you have to offer and then selecting winners at random.
The selecting winners at random part is where Harvard and Yale might have gotten off track. It turns out that elite universities were allowing elite families to pay their way into the side door right through the admission gates.
While none of us “regular people” are surprised by this shameful “revelation”- it did seem to come as quite a shock to the media and upper middle class. Now, there are cries from all directions demanding that “something be done!”
I am 100% on board for change and I think lotteries are interesting as a solution to a whole range of issues from tax compliance to recycling. But, I draw the line at academia. That cost is too great to waste on a fun experiment. Before we alter the course of an entire generation’s future, let us consider the practical implications of a college admission lottery-based system.
I’ve heard some good arguments for college admission by lottery. Most people have been citing that this is the “fairest” system, to which I reply “yes because the first lesson we want to teach our young adults is that life is always fair.”
The better of the arguments for admission by lottery is summarized in the following quote by Barry Schwartz, a psychologist at Swarthmore College: “lotteries would encourage a certain degree of risk-taking among high-school students. ”In recognizing that their admission is random, perhaps highly qualified high-schoolers would embrace their passions and explore their intrinsic interests rather than pad their resumes with accomplishments and activities they think — and have been told — those elite colleges prioritize.”
Do you ever wonder why people who win large sums of money in the lottery often end up broke and miserable only a few years later? It’s because they don’t respect the money they won because they didn’t earn it. It was good luck that they got it and it will bad luck if they lose it. But either way, it’s fate.
When poker players win money at the casino they put it in a separate pocket than the money the brought with them because the won money is “house” money. They didn’t earn it so they don’t care if they lose it.
What these examples demonstrate is that humans have evolved to appreciate what has been worked for and devalue anything that has been easily attained.
“I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented. Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening, work ethic” — Will Smith
Evolutionarily this makes sense because the harder something was to get, the more valuable it became. In order to motivate our species to do anything hard, we had to build in an incentive to reward challenging tasks. If you did something easy it was like “Well anyone can do that” *yawn* …but if you did something hard it was “Wow, did you see that?” *thunderous applause*
If you were the one warrior who could scale that mountain and bring back the wild boar for the tribe, you were the best. Had Harvard been around back then you would have been valedictorian. That’s how that would have worked.
It would be very bad if the tribe said “I know you’re the warrior that scaled the mountain, but in the interest of fairness we’re going to choose leaves from a kettle” *pulls out a name* “-ehem Norman will be the new tribe leader” … and we cut to Norman who is 4'7" weighing in at 80 lb. soaking wet.
Now obviously this is an over-exaggeration and the lottery proposes standards like minimum GPA, standardized test scores, and “extra-curricular diversity” (whatever that means) but all else being equal the system recommends random selection. This is when Norman gets called on as tribe leader.
Here is the worst case scenario: a lottery system is implemented for college admissions and kids will replace the belief “if I work hard I can get into Harvard” with “it’s all luck and chance, I might as well not even try.”
Not to get too virtuous here, but the American Dream is built on the concept of being able to work your way out of a bad situation and into a better life. What happens when we replace striving for earnest achievement with hoping for magical favor? The following quote by the great Will Smith demonstrates the importance of intense effort over passive acceptance:
“I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented. Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening, work ethic” — Will Smith on talent vs. skill in success
I don’t know the right answer to this obviously complex problem. It has root causes that go back so far into history that it’s almost impossible to untangle. My honest suggestion would be to rip the system down and start over. No more Ivys, no more rich families buying their kids way through life, no more privilege given where it is not first earned- but that’s not a practical solution.
One thing I would be willing to bet on is that a college admission lottery system is a bad idea. It takes the agency away from everyone, and some people barely had it to begin with.