Admissions as a game of chance? New research indicates lotteries may reduce diversity

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TThe college admission process leads to many unfair outcomes, but turning it into a giant game of chance could make matters worse.

That’s according to a new admission lottery feasibility study published Wednesday in Education researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association. Selective institutions, two prominent researchers found, could see a sharp decline in enrollments from low-income and minority students – and men – if they admit students through a large raffle.

The results complicate the widely held idea that lotteries could make the admissions process fairer, an idea that supporters have championed for over 40 years, at least. Although the proposals have varied, the gist is the same: colleges would set minimum eligibility thresholds, perhaps adding weights for some variables, and then, like in bingo – B5! G18! – chance would determine the final results.

“A lot of people like the idea of ​​a lottery because it seems like the fairest thing,” said Dominique J. Baker, assistant professor of educational policy at Southern Methodist University and co-author of the study. “But that doesn’t mean it would be a fair solution. Statistically fair is not automatically fair or fair. With a randomly admitted class, “she said,” there is no guarantee in a single year that the demographic composition, in terms of race, sex and income, will resemble that of the population of eligible lottery “.

Baker and his co-author, Michael N. Bastedo, professor of education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, conducted robust admissions lottery simulations for their study, the first to analyze the potential effects of multiple criteria. lottery eligibility, including high school cumulative averages and SAT / ACT scores with varying minimum thresholds, used both together and separately. The researchers relied on nationally representative federal data sets to compare the characteristics of students enrolled in highly selective (Ivy League, etc.) and moderately selective (such as the University of Georgia) colleges with those of students who could have registered on the basis of a lottery.

They found “potentially dramatic and negative effects” of lotteries on student diversity. In the vast majority of simulations, the proportion of low-income students and students of color dropped, in some models to less than 2 percent of the class. The GPA and SAT-only lotteries did not result in a student pool with a higher share of low-income admissions.

The most consistent finding for GPA eligibility lotteries was that the pool of eligible students included a significantly smaller proportion of men. These results were consistent across a range of minimum GPA cutoffs, weighted GPAs, and standardized test scores.

In simulations using mixed eligibility criteria – SAT and weighted GPA – the eligible pool of black and Hispanic students was the lowest – and did not match the share of students currently enrolled in selective colleges.

“Admission lotteries, with minimum bars for surrogacy and / or standardized tests,” the researchers wrote, “do not appear to produce more equitable results.”

A few things are important to consider here. First, the required thresholds – test scores and GPAs – would inevitably reproduce educational disparities within the existing admissions system. For one thing, student performance on the ACT and SAT varies widely by breed. “If increasing the number of low-income students attending selective institutions is a goal,” they wrote, “the inclusion of a university entrance exam as part of eligibility for the lottery makes achieving this exceptionally difficult “. According to the researchers, even a significant drop in eligibility thresholds would not necessarily lead to greater diversity.

In short, applicants from certain subgroups would be much more likely to get a lottery ticket than others. “For any measure of academic ability required to access the lottery,” said Baker, “we have to keep in mind that whatever inequalities that exist for these measures would be built into the lottery itself.”

Another crucial point: the results of the lottery would be volatile. And colleges seek predictability in their pursuit of diversity and income enrollment goals, while pursuing specific specializations and ensuring there are enough goalies for each team. “There would be a lot of variation from year to year,” Baker said. “I don’t know how you tell an institution that if they do a lottery one year 2% of their students might be black, then the next year it might be 10%.”

The only way to ensure racial and ethnic diversity would be to organize a lottery among each subgroup of students. But such a plan, the researchers note, would surely run counter to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ban on the use of racial quotas in admissions.

Baker said she and Bastedo did not intend to disparage admission lotteries, which some knowledgeable researchers have described as a desirable way to tackle unfair admission practices, alleviate anxiety of applicants and minimize debate over race-conscious admissions. It’s understandable that a lottery might appear to be an attractive alternative to a status quo that favors affluent white students and often yields results that may seem unfair to any disappointed candidate.

At the very least, such a system would be relatively simple – and not so opaque. “It’s incredibly transparent, and some people are hanging onto that part,” Baker said. “But they don’t deal with the actual implementation and ask, ‘What does that look like in reality? “”

In reality, this seems impractical, requiring cooperation between colleges that would likely put them at risk of violating federal antitrust laws. Additionally, it would in many ways prevent admissions officers from using their judgment when assessing applicants’ accomplishments – and the context of those accomplishments – in holistic assessments.

Baker, a former admissions manager, described the current system as far from perfect. “But there are some positive things that come from this system,” she said. “Institutions are able to make certain decisions in ways that serve racial equity. ”

Decisions they wouldn’t want to leave to chance.


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