A couple of weeks ago, I proposed a distinction between college and higher ed. My goal was to bring some clarity to debates about public funding, student debt, tuition increases, and related issues, in which “college” often serves as a catchall for very different enterprises. The idea was that we should restrict the term “college”  to four-year degrees in the arts and sciences, taught by faculty engaged in (or at least trained for) independent research and geared toward  residential students between the ages of about 18 and 22.  On the other hand, I proposed that we refer to the vast and growing constellation of part-time, vocational, non-residential programs geared toward non-traditional students as “higher and continuing ed.”

There’s another importance difference between college and higher and continuing ed. While the latter is typically open to anyone who enrolls, we generally associate the former with selective admissions. In my earlier post, I suggested that we don’t need more students in college, at least in the narrow sense I’ve described. So how should those scarce seats be allocated?

piece in The Atlantic by Barry Schwarz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore, offers an appealing proposal. In place of the increasingly expensive and burdensome admissions process, Schwarz suggests a placement lottery in which:

…every applicant who is good enough gets his or her name put in a hat, and then “winners” are chosen at random. If selective schools use a lottery, the pressure balloon that is engulfing high-school kids will be punctured. Instead of having to be better than anyone else, they will just have to be good enough—and lucky. Anyone who is good enough gets her name thrown into the hat, and has the same chance of admission as anyone else with a name in the hat.

Writing at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Claire Potter offers a refinement of the scheme. She asks:

…how about a system in which every college and university agreed to use the Common App, and each student were only permitted to apply to six schools. An applicant would have to rank a preference for each school from one to six, would be guaranteed entry to one, but could not be admitted to more than two?

Although obviously vague, these seem to me extremely sound ideas. One advantage, as Potter points, is that a lottery plan would allow cuts to bloated admissions offices. No more need to pay legions of administrators to scrutinize applications or argue about the merits. It would be enough to give students’ files a rather cursory scan for grades and major achievements.

Another gain, which Schwarz emphasizes, is to students themselves, especially those from the upper middle classes. If admissions depended more on chance, they would be relieved of some pressure to build perfect applications, and the shame that they experience when the fail. It would be more honest, and more fair, to acknowledge that there are many more qualified candidates than there are seats at the most selective colleges. Under those conditions, why not let chance decide who goes to Harvard and who to, say, the University of Michigan?

But perhaps the greatest benefit of a college lottery is that it might help puncture the illusion that Harvard graduates have somehow earned access and influence that others haven’t. Instead, they might be recognized as what they are: the winners of a series of “lotteries” beginning with a fortunate choice of parents. My point is not the unearned advantages should be taken away in the name of fairness. Rather, it’s that we shouldn’t fool ourselves that the ostensibly objective process of college admissions has replaced the old lottery of birth.

Of course, that’s why we’ll never have a college lottery. Academic meritocracy is the legitimating myth of present social order.