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After affirmative action

Jul 17,2023 - Last updated at Jul 17,2023


BOSTON — The US Supreme Court’s decision disallowing explicitly race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions has intensified debates about privilege and social mobility in the United States. Elite colleges are central to these issues, and the disappointment felt among advocates of greater inclusivity and openness in higher education is understandable. But so, too, is the elation among Asian-Americans, who were discriminated against in the admissions process at institutions such as Harvard University.

In any case, we now have an opportunity to think about more radical solutions to what is clearly a broken admissions system at top US universities. The problems with the current approach are legion. For starters, the children of wealthy donors and alumni fill many coveted slots, and nobody bothers to deny that the motivation for such legacy admissions is to raise more money and add to top schools’ endowments.

Moreover, despite their need-based scholarships and stated commitments to inclusivity, elite colleges make only a limited contribution to social mobility when compared to less selective public universities and colleges. It is these institutions that provide the main pathway for upward mobility among whites and underrepresented minorities alike, owing to the simple fact that they admit far more Americans from less-advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, who are unlikely to get into the most elite institutions.

The current system also allows admissions officers to make highly consequential decisions without transparency or accountability, and it gives far too much weight to extracurricular activities, even though this clearly privileges children from upper-middle-class backgrounds.

What would meaningful reforms look like? One worthy idea is admissions lotteries, which were originally suggested by the psychologist Barry Schwartz in the early 2000s and endorsed more recently by the Harvard philosopher Michael J. Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit.

Sandel’s book, together with Yale law professor Daniel Markovits’s recent book on the same topic, offers a broader criticism of “meritocracy” for its role in creating a sense of entitlement among those who succeed and a sense of failure among those who do not. Both books warn of “faux meritocracy”, whereby merit provides cover for the social networks, connections, and wealth that truly enable success.

But it would be a mistake to base all admissions at elite colleges on lotteries. After all, these are top-notch research universities, and there is social value in connecting the best-performing students with the best researchers, as well as in preserving the ethos of academic excellence.

Still, a hybrid lottery system could work, with applications being classified into three groups on the basis of a metric like the SAT/ACT (the two standardised college-level aptitude tests used in the US). In addition to the rejection pile, the second group could comprise the top 10 per cent of scores that the college in question currently admits, and the third could include all those in the bottom 90 per cent of the acceptable range. This latter group, which may be five to ten times larger than the size of the class that is currently admitted, would then be narrowed down by lottery.

There is nothing inherently unfair about a lottery. Because the differences in academic preparedness among members of this third group are generally quite small, selection often depends on other factors, such as whether an applicant is an athlete or has excelled in other extracurricular activities. But these criteria are just as arbitrary as a lottery.

Lotteries can also transparently give a boost to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as by weighting for low parental income, or who hail from low-income zip codes or rural areas. Residential segregation is a growing, and increasingly well-documented, social problem in America. But if students from low-income zip codes got a significant boost to their chances of admission to elite colleges, many middle-class parents might think twice before moving to high-income suburbs.

However, since even weighting the lottery probabilities would not balance the scales, we also should consider an additional measure: Automatic applications for top students from low-income schools. This way, high-potential candidates from underprivileged areas will not miss out on opportunities simply because they were discouraged from applying, as so often happens with the current system.

Lotteries would also create a more diverse student body at top universities, because the lottery group would have more heterogeneous economic and ethnic backgrounds, as one already finds at mid-level colleges. A lottery-based system therefore would invite a broader reassessment of meritocracy, by undermining the conceit that children from already rich areas and parents are naturally and deservedly succeeding. Some of these students would get in, but many others would not, and this benefit would be even further amplified if admitted students are not told whether they were in group two or three.

Finally, a hybrid lottery system would eliminate the non-transparent, arbitrary power of admission committees, and it could make it easier to evaluate the most elite (and expensive) institutions’ value-added. Do universities such as Stanford and Princeton really “earn” the fees they charge? We could now find out.

Naturally, such a radical change would meet with fierce opposition, not least from the families that currently gain access through their social networks, investments in extracurriculars and extra instruction, and by relocating to higher-income areas with better-resourced schools. Some elite colleges may also fight such reforms, for fear of losing out on alumni donations. But do they really need bigger endowments?

In any case, breaking with the status quo might require only one or two colleges moving first, perhaps with some inducement from the government. For example, federal grants and other transfers could be made conditional on an institution achieving sufficient representation of children from low-income households or zip codes. This is time for new thinking and bold action in US higher education.


Daron Acemoglu, professor of Economics at MIT, is a co-author (with Simon Johnson) of Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity (PublicAffairs, May 2023). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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