Should Harvard start admitting kids at random?

Tyler Cowen links to an article where Ron Unz provides evidence that Jews are way overrepresented at Ivy League colleges, with Asians-Americans and non-Jewish whites correspondingly underrepresented. Unz attributes this to bias and pressure in the admissions office and recommends that, instead, top colleges should switch to a system based purely academic credentials (he never clearly defines these, but I assume he’s talking about high school grades, SAT scores, and prizes in recognized academic competitions). He recommends that Harvard, for example, get rid of preferences for athletes, musicians, and rich people, and instead reserve one-fifth of their slots based on pure academic merit and with the remaining four-fifth “being randomly selected from the 30,000 or so American applicants considered able to reasonably perform at the school’s required academic level and thereby benefit from a Harvard education.”

A lot would depend on where that lower threshold is set. As a teacher at Harvard, I have a selfish desire to teach the very best students (or that subset of these who would be interested in taking a statistics class). On the other hand, if the threshold is lower, there’s less of an attraction to teaching at Harvard; maybe that’s part of the point. Unz discusses the conflicting goals of giving an elite education to the elite, as compared to mixing students from diverse backgrounds. He argues that the current system is so screwed up that it would possible to improve on both dimensions (although at a cost to the colleges’ sports teams).

One thing that Unz does not discuss is the possibility of a college changing its composition midstream, by kicking out some students who can’t hack it and then admitting an equivalent number of transfer students to take their place. I’ve always liked this idea, and it seems like more of a possibility if you start admitting students at random.

It’s hard to imagine just about any part of Unz’s plan happening (shutting out the children of rich alumni is a non-starter; reducing the number of Jewish admits by 75% would make a lot of people upset; even something as seemingly innocuous as freeing up some spaces by reducing the preference to athletes always raises controversy when it comes up). In short, the status quo wins. Ivies are doing pretty well right now (maybe not in 10 years, who knows, but they’re doing fine at the moment) so who’s gonna want to poke the hornet’s nest? You might imagine that some non-elite college could try Unz’s system, but the trouble there is that such colleges are trying so hard to get OK enough applicants who can pay the bills, that it’s not clear they have much room to maneuver. The more equal representation that Unz might be easier to achieve at the back end, by having various institutions refuse to hire so many Ivy graduates or to fund Ivy projects. If it were harder for Harvard students to get a job—just by virtue of being Harvard graduates—that would change things pretty fast.

Some of Unz’s arguments work against each other. For example, he brings up William F. Buckley’s quote “that he would rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 names listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard,” but Buckley first came to fame by promoting the idea that alumni should take more control of Yale. In which case I don’t think these alumni would be so happy to give up their kids’ slots and submit to a lottery.

But maybe I’m missing something here. In any case, this is all interesting to think about as a comparison point.

23 thoughts on “Should Harvard start admitting kids at random?

  1. Let me preface my remarks by noting that I went to a directional commuter school as an undergraduate.

    I think we might as well be honest and admit that pull helps — being a legacy, donating large sums of money, being able to anchor the offensive line, etc. Trying to hide this fact just leads to obfuscation and corruption. Why not just say “10% of our slots go to legacies” and be done with it?

    • A major point Unz made is that it’s not even that rational. The admissions staff at these schools is often of astonishingly low quality. They will ding you for just being a member of 4-H, or other pursuits popular among more rural & conservative youth. There’s a hilarious anecdote about an admissions officer pulling for a privileged & unqualified student because he was an old college buddy of her guidance counselor.

  2. Andrew – I flagged this idea last year in a small post. I go a bit beyond the random allotment –

    “One particular use of lottery is in fair assignment of scarce indivisible resources. For example, think of a good school with only hundred open seats that receives a thousand applications from candidates who are indistinguishable (or only weakly distinguishable) – given limitations of data – from each other in matters of ability. One fair way of assigning seats would be to do it randomly.

    One may choose to consider the matter closed at this point. However, this means making peace with disproportional outcomes. Alternatives exist to this option. For example, one may ask the winners of the lottery to give back to those who didn’t win – say by sharing the portion of their income attributable to going to a good school, or by producing public goods, or by some other mutually agreed mechanism.”

  3. I wonder if this would not be counter-productive to the brand? Harvard is high prestige because it is exclusive and associated with rich alumni. Allowing in a lot of students picked mostly at random would dilute this brand, which might well relocate to another school. I suspect Alumni control is actually a big element in the success of the Ivy Leagues (they get rich donations and Almuni have an incentive to drive up the prestige of the school). Legacies just seem to be a natural part of this business plan.

      • I agree that the key is on “the conflicting goals of giving an elite education to the elite, as compared to mixing students from diverse backgrounds” or to try to “get best academic students”.

      • THE Rich,.the poor, middle will object to it for reasons that I understand very well. The only way to deal with it is to deprive both Harvard and Columbia of tax money, so both schools will survive solely on alumni money. And Andrew has to depend ON Alumni largesse and not on an Before grant. NO TAX MONEY FOR PRIVATE UNIVERSITIES.

        • I meant Andrew will no longer be depending on an NSF grant once there be no tax money from the Feds but on alumni largesse

  4. Admissions are already random but the randomization is neither explicit nor uniform.

    The problem, as I understand it, is that some candidates have higher propensity scores based on (non academic) characteristics. The proposed solution involves a two-part procedure. First we coarsen the admissions score into “admissible / not admissible”, and then we uniformly randomize x students to be admitted.

    As usual there are winners and losers to this policy. With trade liberalization winners can compensate the losers and still come out ahead. But which losers should be compensated here? Arguably the university, which stands to loose donations, but not the elites that are loosing a privilege. However, does diversity increase the size of the pie in a way that makes compensation profitable? Fairness may have a price.

  5. Are they also over-represented in admissions? Then your solution would make sense. Otherwise, this is a survivor-ship bias, and only implies that they have the ability to attend these colleges at a higher rate.

  6. This is amusing:

    25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

    27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.


    On the one hand, God controls lotteries. On the otherhand, it would be pure hell putting someone in a position they cound not handle, doomed to fail.

    Segregated (elite together) education is probably good, but one problem is all parties develop inaccurate understandings of their position in the pecking-order. It’s annoying when you encounter someone who is unaware they are inferior!

  7. “Ron Unz provides evidence that Jews are way overrepresented at Ivy League colleges, with Asians-Americans and non-Jewish whites correspondingly underrepresented.”

    Did you find this evidence convincing?

      • It seemed to me that the part where he relied on Steve Sailer’s estimates of Jewish NMS finalists by counting obviously Jewish last names was very shaky. (By his criteria, he wouldn’t count, you wouldn’t count, I wouldn’t count, and my kids who are being raised Jewish but given their mother’s Irish name certainly wouldn’t count.)

  8. That is funny, since I understood that the scholastic aptitude test was originally dreamed up as a way of keeping jews out of Harvard. It appears each generation encounters its own version of this – uh – problem (while jewish boys and girls just keep getting into Harvard, either way).

  9. “One thing that Unz does not discuss is the possibility of a college changing its composition midstream, by kicking out some students who can’t hack it and then admitting an equivalent number of transfer students to take their place.”

    UCLA does this to a surprising extent. They take in 3000+ transfer students per year, mostly from community colleges. It’s an easy way to get a prestigious UCLA degree without having the >4.0 high school GPA that’s usually required to get accepted to UCLA as a freshman. Most upper middle class kids in L.A. won’t take this route, however, because their high schools pressure them to go to four year colleges.

    Armenians, however, seem to be discovering this easy backdoor to a nice degree. My wife knew an Armenian girl who had taken a test to get high school degree credit at 16, spent two years at LA Valley JC, then was transferring to UCLA and would graduate at age 20.

  10. A tangential comment. More than 40 years ago, my undergraduate advisor (Raplh Gray) at DePauw University proposed attacking the homogeneity of the school (99% white) by admitting–tuition-free–transfer students who had completed 2 years at a community college. His argument was that, given the small size of upper-division classes (then running something around 10-15), admitting a reasonable cohort of transfer students would have essentially a zero marginal cost, would broaden the experience of DePauw’s normal admits (not-so-urban) and provide a different experience as well to the transfer students who were admitted. The administration, and many of the alumni who even heard of the program, opposed it bitterly…and not all the faculty were what you might call enthusiastic…Even today it sounds like a plausible approach to me…

  11. Columbia does this with engineering. Numerous colleges, fine colleges, can send engineering students to Columbia after two years with a minimum gpa. Even though the schools are fine schools, many people see this as a negative diluting the quality of the school with people who would not have been initially admitted. The admissions process is given a sacred quality.

    In fact, for a school like Harvard, admissions is arguably random. MIT has a very open debate on this topic on its admission page and argues that the distinctions it draws between similar applicants are meaningful, that they can in essence “smell” leadership on paper. MIT does reference the behavioral economics (Nobel prize winners) who would suggest that similar processes (stock brokers who think they can beat the market) are the product of built in biases, that people believe that they add value when they don’t but that admissions is different. I don’t buy it. Ten applicants with incredible credentials apply to Harvard. Pick anyone and they would thrive at Harvard. Saying you picked the right one is meaningless.

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