A lottery for elite institutions

Columnist Frank Bruni recently had fun with a satiric essay. Looking into the future, Mr. Bruni wrote that Stanford's steadily declining acceptance rate had "plummeted all the way to its inevitable conclusion of 0 percent," triggering an unparalleled, Madison Avenue-like effort by elite universities and colleges from coast to cost to increase their applicant pools so they can keep up with the competition by lowering their acceptance rate.

Stanford's actual acceptance rate is not, unfortunately, that far off: The university announced this spring that it had accepted only 4.69 percent of its applicants, which was the lowest in its history and made it the most selective university in the nation.


Having spent 20 years in the administrations of Johns Hopkins (15 percent) and Brown (9 percent) universities, working closely with admission offices, I know how much institutions love to boast about their low acceptance rate. The 9 out of 10 (or more) students who get rejected don't share their pleasure.

As high school seniors discover, the admission process can be stressful and even painful both for themselves and their anxious parents. There are those nasty SAT and ACT tests, the complicated applications with the dreaded essay, the expensive visits to the campuses, the fateful interview, the agonizing wait and, finally, the crushing news that you didn't make it and have to choose one of your back-up schools. The hurt of being rejected is not allayed by the knowledge that a vast majority of your fellow applicants also received the kiss-off letter.

So I would like to offer a modest proposal: Every college or university with an acceptance rate lower than 20 percent should pledge to admit 15 percent of its projected freshman enrollment by lottery conducted before selecting the rest of the class. Most of the students who apply to elite institutions are highly qualified and would probably do as well as those admitted in the traditional way.

Some precautions would be necessary to make sure a lottery works as intended. For example, the relatively few applicants who don't meet the basic admission requirements would be eliminated from the lottery during the prescreening, which all admission offices go through. And the lottery would not be used as a reason to lessen the institution's efforts to ensure diversity among the students admitted.

Some fine tuning also would be necessary. Admitting either too many or too few students can have serious negative consequences on budgeted revenue from tuition, financial aid and dormitory space. Because even the most elite institutions can't be certain every student admitted will accept, colleges achieve their targeted enrollment with "waiting lists." A lottery might require recalculating the formula for determining the size of the waiting list.

To those who fear a lottery would compromise the academic standards of the institution, one need only look at the way Sanford, Harvard, Yale and most other elites admit some students largely on the basis of their athletic ability, or the wealth and influence of their families. That doesn't necessarily mean such students don't meet academic requirements, but it is likely that they nudge out students who are more academically qualified.

A lottery would make the admission process at elite institutions a bit fairer for qualified applicants and improve the odds of acceptance for some. Because the acceptance rate would not be affected, Stanford and the other elites could still send out prideful press releases each spring about how selective — and therefore desirable — they are.

Ron Wolk (ronwolk@cox.net) is co-founder of The Chronicle of Higher Education and founding editor of Education Week. He is retired and lives in Warwick, R.I.