More on Lotteries

My column in The Crimson yesterday argued that Harvard should start admitting students by random lottery (albeit with a minimum SAT score / GPA cutoff). This has provoked a good number of responses, many of which I actually agree with but raise issues I did not have room to address in the column.

Matt Yglesias doesn’t think I went far enough. Specifically, on the minimum SAT/GPA provision, he notes, “A system like that would still maintain the backwards allocation of resources where the richest schools have the best students.” I don’t think this is exactly right. The point of the cutoff is not to ensure that the best students go to Harvard, but that whatever students are randomly selected to attend do not fail out.

My intention, in the column, was to propose a policy Harvard and other schools could adopt immediately, and barring a huge change in the school’s teaching practices and support mechanisms, there will be some people who apply to Harvard who cannot handle the workload. Given that these students would not benefit much at all from going to Harvard, it seems perverse to admit them. That said, the cutoff would still be low enough that many people without the natural advantages of current Harvard students could get in, and so some degree of redistribution of resources from the talented would take place.

In the long run, like Matt, I’d support policies that more dramatically reallocate resources away from the best students. For example, I’d love to see a tax on university endowments with all proceeds going to reduce community college tuition. But when looking at what Harvard alone can do right now, I think a lottery with a cutoff is the best first step.

Monica Potts argues that a lottery would be biased against poor and minority students, because persistent achievement gaps would mean fewer would meet the minimum cutoff, fewer poor students apply to elite institutions to begin with, and other institutions would crop up to help elites the way Harvard did pre-lottery.

A national lottery with many schools participating, along the lines outlined in the column, would address the latter two problems. If applying to Harvard is no different from applying to any other school, then presumably fewer low income applicants would be deterred from doing so. And if all schools were required or strongly pressured to participate in a uniform admissions process, the chances of a school defecting and abandoning the lottery would be low.

The achievement gap problem is tough, as adjusting the cutoff through class-based preferences would necessarily mean letting students into the lottery who would not be capable of doing work at the college that admits them. There isn’t a short-run fix here. Instead, a broader equalization of resources between elite and non-elite institutions, such that students would have no reason to want to go to a school where they can’t do the work, seems like the best bet. Oh, and closing the achievement gap to start with, through better early childhood education and other measures, should be on the agenda.

Sam Barr objects more to my philosophical foundations, intuiting that I’m arguing on Rawlsian terms and responding that John Rawls would actually not object to the current admissions system. This is basically a misunderstanding. I’m not a Rawlsian by any means, for one thing. For another, the association of Rawls with luck egalitarianism – the belief that peoples’ prospects in life should not be determined by factors beyond their control – is a huge misreading.


Rawls famously called natural talent and other things beyond our control “arbitrary from a moral point of view”. But for him, this only means that in the original position, when we are deciding on principles of justice, they should not come into play. It does not mean that they should be treated as arbitrary in a just society. In fact, he argues just the opposite.

Rawls places huge importance on “equality of opportunity” in his theory, and indeed argues that it should trump his famous “difference principle”, which says that economic inequalities must provide absolute gains to even the worst-off. Equality of opportunity, for Rawls, means that peoples’ “life chances” must be determinedly solely by effort and natural talent. That is, even if helping untalented people is in accordance with the difference principle, Rawls rejects it as unjust for violating equality of opportunity; he says this explicitly on page 265 of A Theory of Justice. Richard Arneson’s “Against Rawlsian Equality of Opportunity” is an excellent explanation of the disturbing implications of Rawls’ view.


Apart from this mixup, Sam argues that admitting students based on lottery is just as arbitrary as admitting them based on natural talent. Given that admissions is going to be somehow arbitrary, he continues, we should focus on what people do with their elite education, not whether they get it to start with.

The first part of this assumes that all arbitrary procedures are equally objectionable, which is wrong. Relying on natural talent is objectionable not just because it is random, but because it provides resources to those who need them least, and because it creates a stigmatized class who are discriminated against based on a feature of their character which they cannot change. A lottery does neither of these things. Rejection, in the current system, amounts to a negative comment on an inalterable feature of oneself, and is thus a real harm to those who are rejected. Rejection in a lottery says nothing about one’s character, and is thus far less damaging. That strikes me as a real improvement.

I agree with Sam that recipients of elite educations should put those educations to good use. It’s unclear what the policy implications of this are, but if there’s something Harvard can do to encourage better career paths for its students–say, by banning investment banks or consulting firms from recruiting on campus–I’d be all for it. But this assumes that there should be such a thing as elite and non-elite education to start with. In the long-run, we should be equalizing resources between elite and non-elite institutions, which would render moot the question of what to do with the increased resources of an elite education.