Incentive Lost: The Lottery Future

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.

32 thoughts on “Incentive Lost: The Lottery Future

    1. SHG Post author

      You won’t be laughing at my grievance studies Ph.D. when I open up my chain of $1 Grievance Stores and become filthy rich.

      Reply
  1. RT

    Perhaps when it proves successful in college admissions, her modest proposal could be adopted for elected office as well. Anyone who wants to be President or whatever can quite simply opt in for the drawing! That would certainly simplify the process. Talk about election reform!

    Reply
    1. Nyx

      Hardly so far-fetched – the ancient Athenians selected magistrates and jurors through sortition (basically, picking eligible citizens at random), believing that elections would be controlled by the rich and powerful and lead to oligarchy. Juries are still picked by sortition.

      Reply
  2. DaveL

    In our brave new world, nobody must be allowed to make a difference. For if things are different, they cannot be equal.

    Reply
  3. Jeffrey M Gamso

    I guess I don’t see the problem. I mean, if the only value that matters is diversity, then randomness achieves it. (Of course, she would require applying to those schools while achieving true diversity would toss everyone in the pot – no reason to admit only those who want in.)

    But then, why not just give out diplomas to a random selection of the population. (Would a 25% of the adult population be a proper college graduate rate? 46%? 93%? Hell, give ’em to everyone. Problem solved.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      I remember my first day at college, when the dean told us to look to our right, look to our left, that one of us would not graduate. I don’t think that’s said or done anymore.

      Reply
      1. Scott Spencer

        No, we don’t do that or say that anymore…We want 4-5 year graduation rates of at least 80%. Can you imagine telling someone they will never graduate? I mean I can, but I don’t work in admissions or counseling.

        Also, this last semester, we had about 1500 of the 2000 undergraduate students at my college on the Dean’s List. Pretty special. We don’t have a drawing at my college, we just let them all in except for dance. They actually have to be able to dance. Which I guess is ableist?

        Going to think positive here, maybe if we do have a random drawing that will send some of the elite kids to things like trade schools where they can actually learn useful skills and then we can have genius mechanics and plumbers…..

        Reply
          1. Jeffrey M Gamso

            Back in the long-ago days when I was teaching English, there were those students who simply disappeared. Naturally, I would give them an F. But I always thought they devalued the Fs of the kids who actually earned them. Sadly, there were no options for F+ or F-.

            Some folks, I assume, would pass those students which began the march to grade inflation as every grade would then have to go up a notch.

            Reply
        1. Drew Conlin

          Mr. Spencer, I was hoping a reference to skilled trades would give me the opportunity to tell this adolescent joke:
          A man calls the plumber to fix a leaky commode. After completing the job and presenting the bill to the man, the man gasps and says ..” I’m a brain surgeon and I don’t make anything like this amount of money”…
          …” Neither did I when I was a brain surgeon “

          Reply
    1. DaveL

      There’s a vast gulf between the respect given to the self-taught and that accorded to the self-credentialled.

      Reply
  4. B. McLeod

    Apart from the issue of “admission,” there tends to be a question of money at these “elite” schools. Without the means to cover the tuition and fees, the “admission” does not mean a great deal.

    Reply
    1. SHG Post author

      That’s what student debt is for. And in anticipation of your next question, that’s what loan forgiveness is for. You’re welcome.

      Reply
    2. Scott Spencer

      Well the next thing that will be required is that the elite schools pay the tuition out of the billion dollar endowment. Until the endowment goes away.

      Reply
      1. delurking

        Many of the elite schools have already moved to grant-only financial aid packages. They no longer require student loans.

        Reply
          1. delurking

            5,000 students at $70,000 per year is $350M. For a typical endowment which spends 4% per year (saving the rest of the investment return), that requires $8.75B in endowment funds.
            Endowments:
            Harvard: $40B
            Yale: $30B
            Stanford: $28B
            MIT: $17B

            There are very good arguments against lottery admission at elite schools. The cost is not a ridiculous argument, but it isn’t one of the very good arguments.

            Reply
  5. PseudonymousKid

    I’m annoyed you made me read again. The author admits that she’s presuming random selection would increase diversity in the last paragraph by calling her proposal an “experiment”. What makes the author believe this besides her personal desire for more bohemian college students? She doesn’t say. Random selection wouldn’t necessarily increase diversity and could do quite the opposite. Is she serious or just playing a thought experiment out in her head? I think it’s the latter. This is what you get for your tepid support of diversity for diversity’s sake, Pops.

    Not that I’m against radical proposals that would incite a bit of chaos in an otherwise orderly system. Let’s run the experiment for giggles and see what happens. When Harvard gets all white people in successive classes by random chance everyone will feel better I bet. That’s what the pot is for maybe.

    Reply
      1. PseudonymousKid

        Yep she got me. Well played on her part. It’s a fun thought experiment at least. Just like imagining our leaders being chosen by lot. It’d be cool to see exactly how everything would go sideways, but let’s keep them in imagination land where ideas like them belong.

        Reply
  6. Dan

    As little as five years ago, this would have been obvious, beat-you-over-the-head satire. Today, the Overton Window has shifted so far that it’s entirely plausible–maybe even probable–that she’s serious. But it shows that Screwtape is well on his way to accomplishing his objective: “What I want to fix your attention on is the vast, overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination, of every kind of human excellence.”

    Reply
  7. Rxc

    There is already one large element of chance in higher education. The parents you have. Do you have a tiger mom/dad who pushes you relentlessly to study, to practice that musical instrument, or to train on the track ot in the pool to make the team?

    Oh, and is she going to do this experiment at places like MIT, so that HS graduates who can’t make change for a $4.34 purchase, are going to learn how to design rockets and bridges, and treat patients with cancer?

    Reply

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