In her incisive Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil laid bare the inadequacies of algorithms as a simplistic and deeply flawed way to predict who would be a criminal. With that in mind, her modest proposal for predicting who should go to Harvard is either brilliant satire or a surprising rejection of the calculus she once championed.
After yet another spring in which millions of American kids endured the anxiety of discovering whether their chosen colleges had accepted them, pundits are yet again lamenting the absurdity and social ills of the process. Why should a cabal of admissions officers hold so much sway over high-school students’ self-esteem and access to the elite?
Allow me to offer a radical solution: Fire the functionaries and use random selection instead.
It does have an “eat the babies” feel to it, but is this just Poe’s Law at its best?
I’m not the first to suggest this. The progressive foundation New America has even made the idea — specifically, adopting lottery admissions at highly selective universities — part of its plan to achieve greater diversity in higher education. There could be a weak notion of who is “qualified” — say, a high school degree and a minimum grade point average. Beyond that, selection would be publicly and provably random. Never mind optional standardized tests. If you show interest, your name goes in a big hat.
I’m a believer in diversity, that a broad array of experience enriches education itself and improves society by bringing new and alternative ideas to the table to expand ideas and challenge parochial limitations. But that doesn’t mean that diversity comes from a hat, but from a universe of fully qualified people who have pushed themselves to their limits to be the best they can be, and be every bit as worthy as every other student in the classroom.
If there aren’t enough people in that universe to make it happen, work on improving the universe of qualified students. It won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen in some quota-burdened system where the only way to make your numbers is to fudge quality. And it may not happen at all, but if that’s the case, it should be organic rather than because we’ve failed to remove the detriments to success.
One downside is that applications to the most selective colleges would soar, causing acceptance rates to plunge and leaving the “strongest” candidates with little chance of getting into their chosen schools. The kids who struggled to get perfect grades, who spent their high school years getting really good at obscure yet in-demand sports, the legacies and the offspring of big donors, would lose their advantages.
If the class were selected at random, what difference would the number of applications make? Pull 100 names out of a hat and you’re done, whether the hat contains a thousand or a million. So what? But what of those “kids who struggled to get perfect grades”? No point to that anymore, since nobody will care. Indeed, this is part of a list of “advantages” that mixes two very different things, accomplishments achieved by hard work, dedication and effort on one side and irrelevant or fortuitous chance on the other.
One of the obvious, yet inexplicably elusive, components of so many of these schemes to promote diversity and inclusion requires us to belief that if you change one piece of a complex puzzle, all the other pieces will remain and function as they did before. If there were no “pay off” of getting into a good college, which would serve as a launching pad for a successful future career, would students have an incentive to study hard, to forego that wild party to finish a term paper, to not give up when trigonometry seems pointless?
And to digress just a bit, students who pushed themselves to become world class athletes in “obscure yet in-demand” sports (like, oh, fencing perhaps?) still have to meet the “Academic Index” to be recruited to an Ivy. They’re qualified educationally, plus they stand out nationally at “obscure” sports.
That said, the positives would be immense. Preferences for legacies, for sports admissions, for kids whose parents can afford tutoring to boost grades and test scores — all contribute mightily to inequality. The simple qualification standard would take the pressure off students to conform to the prevailing definition of the ideal candidate. They’d be free to be kids again, smoking pot and getting laid in between reading Dostoyevsky and writing bad poetry. Or pursuing the sports and disciplines that actually interest them.
Is that why young people no longer smoke pot and get laid?
The problem with a lottery is that it provides no “simple qualification standard” to get in, and that would certainly suck the inequality out of those parents and students who value education, hard work and perseverance, and do whatever they can to improve their chances of winning the prize. All you have to do is show up and you have as much of a chance to win as anyone else. Suddenly, smoking pot and getting laid sounds a whole lot better than reading Dostoevsky, whoever he was.
Best of all, random selection would immediately boost the diversity that colleges say they’ve been seeking to achieve. Colleges wouldn’t have to worry about fighting claims of racial discrimination in the Supreme Court, because by construction the admissions process would be non-discriminatory. No more “soft” criteria. No more biased tests. Just blind chance.
Oh, damn, Cathy. You almost had me, right up until the “just blind chance.” That’s exactly where this leads, a future grounded in nothing more than “blind chance” which would fully address the demands for compelled diversity and, as a mathematician might conclude, would reduce us to the lowest common denominator. Well played, Cathy.