Leading Decision Scientist Talks College Admissions

For parents, watching their children go through the college admissions process can seem like watching animals in heat fighting for mates – vicious, brutal, and fiercely competitive. In a time when the most competitive schools are selecting fewer than one in ten applicants, college admissions can even seem worse.

Barry Schwartz is arguably the world’s leading decision scientist.  In 2005, he put forward a solution to the problem of competition in selective college admissions in an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Top Colleges Should Randomly Select from a Pool of ‘Good Enough‘”.

Schwartz revisited this idea on March 30th during the TEDxSwarthmore event that he piloted. In his talk, “Why Justice Isn’t Enough”, he encouraged colleges to select a pool of “good enough” applicants – probably six times the number of applicants top colleges have space for – and then draw out of a hat.  The Collegiate had the opportunity to have an exclusive interview with Schwartz this past week to expand upon the ideas he put forward during his talk.

You’ve mentioned that justice is equity where people get what they deserve and deserve what they get, so how can we make college admissions just and fair?

“You can’t have a system where admissions is just. There are and will continue to be more applicants than there are spots available at these top colleges. What colleges keep doing is ratcheting up the standards. But the distinctions admissions officers are being asked to make are unthinkable. Stanford could fill its class many times over with students with GPAs above 4.0. Admissions officers are charged with an impossible task. They have to convince themselves they are doing something beyond coin flipping, but that’s essentially what they do every day. We need to be honest about it, take the pressure off the high school kids, and take the advantages away from the kids who have enough savvy and resources to make themselves look better than they really are. As far as I can tell, a lottery would be of no detriment to society because there is no evidence that students who are great but not outstanding don’t deserve to be at these top colleges. The only thing it will do is make people face that they got into these schools because of luck.

For example, Canadians don’t obsess about college. If you live in Ontario you go to school in Ontario. An overwhelming number of students, no matter how great they are, don’t worry about college. There’s no clear evidence that there is a benefit to doing it the American way. The benefit of doing it the Canadian way is that children get to use their childhoods to really cultivate their interests and talents.”

Why is it so important that we acknowledge the critical role that luck plays in our lives?

“It’s a lot easier to turn your back on people if you think you are where you are because you earned it. If we acknowledge the role of luck, we will be much more open to sharing. We will feel more responsibility for caring for others. We can’t bear the idea that luck plays such a great role in our futures, so we deceive ourselves into thinking that it doesn’t. And officially having a lottery instead of having a de facto lottery would force us to acknowledge the role that luck plays.”

If colleges were to adopt this lottery system, would there be a way for students to “game the system” so that if they were unqualified, they could enter this pool of qualified applicants?

“There are all kinds of flaws in the lottery system. You’d have to work out all of this. Could you game the system? Of course. But it’s less destructive because most people who would apply would make the threshold effortlessly. There will be people on the cusp who can game the system but it would be less destructive to an entire generation. And what do you do about having diverse student bodies? Maybe have a weighted lottery. What would the courts say about a weighted lottery? A poor African-American kid from West Philadelphia gets put in the lottery eight times instead of once. There’s no guarantee but he raises his odds. It could protect affirmative action because chances would only be enhanced. Maybe it wouldn’t survive scrutiny and we would have to face up to the fact that that kid from West Philadelphia deserves to get into one of those schools. But we can’t weight the lottery on criteria that people can game. If you have a pool of classical street musicians, everyone would pick up the violin. That’s how it works with early decision now. You can’t make yourself black and you can’t make yourself poor. I wouldn’t object to having not one pool of good enough, but several.”

What messages would you give to students stressing about college?

“I try to convince people that good enough is almost always good enough, which I deeply believe to be true. As long as you have high standards you don’t need to aim for the highest of standards and if you can embrace that, you’re much less likely to freak out. There are, you know, 100 schools where you could get a terrific education. One will be better than another. There’s no way you can know that until you’re there. Chill. This is a waste of breath. Nobody believes that’s true until they are my age. And it’s not to say that the schools are equivalent – they aren’t. The most important determinant of what’s the right place for the student is your conviction that it’s the right place. And then you make it the right place by sucking every good thing out of it and taking advantage of every opportunity. And if you’re here and think you ought to be at Yale, then you don’t take advantage of it and spend half of every day thinking about how much better life would be at Yale. And of course that’s true. It wouldn’t be the best place for you. The critical thing is that people embrace where they are and this notion that there is a best is then an enemy because then if you don’t get into that one place then you have a large chance of having to settle and then that will be self-fulfilling. We need to get over this ranking thing that we do. There is just so much pressure.”