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Solution to Harvard’s admissions problem is simple: run a lottery (qz.com)
48 points by harekaze 8 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 108 comments





So here's the thing: a student body is more than the sum of its parts, which a lottery ignores.

To use just one example: a lottery could easily wind up admitting 40 violin players and zero bassoon players, or 8 percussionists but not a single oboe player. In which case a viable university orchestra becomes impossible, and every potential orchestra player suffers. (These are not exaggerated either -- for an incoming class of 1,000 students, of which only ~100 have a sufficient orchestra background with the requisite years of practice and want to play, there isn't a lot of margin for error.)

Now repeat ad nauseum for every type of sports team, extracurricular, distribution across majors, etc.

By ensuring there are approximately the right number of every "slots" for each type of applicant, the institution ensures that students have the ability to participate in the types of activities and courses they want to, and that student life is rich both academically and extracurricularly.

There are legitimate problems with some of the "slotting" as practiced today (particularly concerning legacies and in terms of whether a racial/ethnic/national balance should match the nation, the applicant pool, some other balance, or be ignored entirely), but a lottery would throw out the baby with the bathwater, and be a disaster for ensuring the kind of vibrant student life that is a major part of 4-year university experience.

(Obviously this is specific to smaller institutions, whether elite or not -- if your incoming class is 30,000 students then you'll always have enough of everyone.)


Harvard using a true lottery would be a self-inflicted wound. A lot of Harvard's value is because it's Harvard. Harvard lowering their perception/brand/prestige is a lose-lose for themselves and the students/alumni (note: actual students, not prospective students).

Think about it this way: the nature of the game is like investing - it's about Harvard picking winners. Harvard is like the well-known VC that can say they funded <this many> unicorns, and being a part of Harvard means being associated with success. Harvard may take some waivers on higher-risk/less-fortunate students for diversifying investments, but it's only one piece of the portfolio. Selectivity is a key ingredient to their ROI, endowment fund, and social capital. Harvard is a private university and cares about their private equity and capital in a way that is different from public universities.


This is the problem I have with higher education. It is not about the effectiveness of the education, but the signal of effectiveness. "Social Capital" is a zero sum game. If someone gains social capital, another must lose. Actual education, on the other hand, is not.

It's really a shame.


A lottery is still easily able to be used here - Harvard could publish the slots and the number of people to admit to each of them, and then perform a lottery based on that.

The idea of lotteries is not new. This problem is addressed in most solutions by weighting for factors.

The issue with the current system is that it produces the lack of diversity that you are describing because it optimises for things that only rich people have access to. If you go to a shit school, something that no child really has control over, you won't have extracurriculars, you might not have sports, there are no violins...this upper middle-class idea of "diversity" is weak and decadent.


It sounds like you want to destroy exactly those things which make Harvard a desirable school in the name of making sure everyone has a equal chance to go there. The strict admissions requirements are really the whole point; that's how they preserve their culture and their reputation. Do away with all that and Harvard becomes just another school. There are already plenty of schools you can go to that don't care about extracurriculars; we don't to turn Harvard into yet another one.

The reason that extracurriculars are valuable is because they are worth doing in and of themselves. You play an instrument because you enjoy it and to give enjoyment to others...not because it will get you into college. By devaluing those experiences, you achieve the banality that you appear to fear so much. In fact, it is really quite tragic that you think that way. Life is to be enjoyed, you can do things as ends in themselves, for their own sake...not because Harvard thinks it is important. Do you make friends based on their extracurricular activities? Do you have to check with Harvard to see if a certain kind of music is enjoyable? It is a ludicrous and quite empty way to look at life.

> Do you make friends based on their extracurricular activities?

Actually, people very frequently become friends through shared extracurricular activities; existing friendships are also a significant factor in choosing activities to participate in. This is all perfectly normal, and choosing extracurriculars for their own sake is the exception, not the rule. It's important to enjoy the activity yourself, of course, but don't dismiss the value that shared interests and backgrounds bring to any relationship.

> Do you have to check with Harvard to see if a certain kind of music is enjoyable?

I don't particularly care what Harvard thinks because I'm not trying to get into Harvard. I don't think it's out of line, however, for them to reinforce both the academic and social aspects of their culture by selecting for prospective students who already share these values—or at least demonstrate both ability and willingness to make an effort to fit in.


This presupposes that colleges truly want their admission process to be fair, which they absolutely don't. Then, how would they get to admit legacy students with wealthy parents?

Also, admitting that getting admitted is based on luck directly contradicts the narrative of meritocracy in college admissions, which would decrease the perceived prestige of the school. So yeah, no way would Harvard go for this.


I think that a lottery without a qualification threshold would contradict meritocracy. In contrast, I don't think a threshold-based lottery contradicts meritocracy. Rather it can be interpreted as a claim that meritocracy cannot be properly quantified beyond a certain precision (which in this case is the threshold). Even if you disagree with that premise, it's substantially different than the rejection of meritocracy altogether.

I also don't think it presupposes anything about what colleges want. What colleges want isn't relevant to a claim about what would be more fair. The paper this article is based on doesn't make an argument for how to force or persuade colleges to espouse the system. It only argues that this system is closer to a platonic ideal of admission fairness.


I think the point is too subtle to be broadly appreciated. Any crack in the dam of meritocracy is likely to become a flood. The illusion must be preserved.

wrt to point 2: I guess it's about perspective. It's fine to propose systems that in theory would be nice but without an eye towards what could actually work, what's the point?


Why is any "crack" in the "dam" of meritocracy likely to become a flood? I don't necessarily disagree, but I don't see any specific evidence justifying that claim.

Hypothetically a threshold-based admission lottery would cast more sunlight on the admissions process since:

1. you'd cease having nonpublic, ill-defined measures for admission above the baseline; and

2. you'd have to publish the threshold in any realistically accountable system.

We can argue about whether or not such a system would be (willingly) embraced by universities, but I don't see how the system itself destroys meritocracy. It seems more accurate to say it simply denies meritocracy can be meaningfully measured above a certain baseline of qualification. That only obliviates meritocratic differences above your defined baseline.

Is your contention that the baseline itself would simply shift the uncertainty "downwards" to maintain the status quo?


A good example of the crack/flood analogy is the current H1B visa system. You do have to be qualified to apply, but if enough people qualify a year, they distribute the spots randomly. Eventually the general public started referring to it as "H1B lottery" and assume it's all a matter of luck.

I mean because at that point it is a matter of luck. You can pretend it's not but when everyone is qualified there stops being a real difference between candidates. I think a lottery for higher education works the same. At joe blow public school that may not be true but at an institution like Harvard, they receive so many qualified applicants they could probably choose and entire class full of any one special interest group and still leave out qualified candidates. The difference between student A and B don't really matter when they are both exceptional

Not everything has to have direct practical implications in order to be valuable to read.

But how is that threshold itself determined? Seems like it's completely arbitrary and at the discretion of the institution.

Good question! I think you can come up with different models for how to define a threshold, and I'm not done reading the paper the article is based on. But implicit in any discussion of a threshold is the idea that the threshold has to be explicit. You can't realistically hold a lottery for ostensible fairness maximization without publicly defining your baseline for lottery eligibility.

It would also probably dramatically worsen the grade inflation that's already rampant at a lot of the elite feeder high schools that pump people into the Ivies (and rampant at Harvard itself[1], fwiw).

1: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2013/12/...


An institution can make a threshold high enough that a sample task from the admission exam is considered hard and selective enough. It can still have it sufficiently low that the number of applicants passing it is 10-30-100 times higher than the number of admissions, so that the lottery effect is not lost.

Don't know about Harvard, but I was involved with interviewing candidates for CS admissions at Oxford. Everyone involved that I worked with most definitely wanted to admit the best, most capable students and could not care less about legacy students or wealth.

The institutions in "the West" are really not as bad as some of us would like to think. Furthermore, undermining the public faith in these institutions can serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy - for example, making some brilliant applicants not even try to apply to a good University, believing it is biased against them.


Is that the same university that admits more from eight private schools than from 3/4 of the state school system? Yep, sounds like a fair system. Cool story bro.

I doubt this is because of a biased admissions process. It could be a variety of factors:

1. Differences in encouragement from parents, teachers etc. Differences in how much emphasis is put on education.

2. Related to #1 - state school kids may think they are not good enough and not apply.

3. Actual quality of education may be significantly better at those schools, especially in certain subjects.

4. Genetic potential - some traits that allow kids to do well academically may well be genetic, so it could be that the parents would also have those traits, be better off economically because of it, and send their kids to good schools because of the combination of valuing education and being able to afford it.


>2. Related to #1 - state school kids may think they are not good enough and not apply.

To back this up, nobody else at my college applied. After I did on a whim, I discovered there was an aptitude test to pass, which I didn't. I blame my negligence for failing but I imagine people from more prestigious colleges & sixth forms would have been aware earlier and had help studying for it. Or even had private tutoring specifically for it.


...really, the quality of education at Eton is better than a school in inner London where you are in a class with 35 other people, 90% of whom don't speak English? That information surprises me...what insights.

The point is that:

1. The gap is very large. Those schools are only graduating a few thousand compared to hundreds of thousands students in state schools. Even if you compare with institutions that receive a huge number of applications from private schools (e.g. Edinburgh, Durham), the effect is disproportionate.

2. We need to make use of people who have the most ability. It is foolish in the extreme to suppose that going to Eton or having the right parents makes you a capable adult. You say the admissions process isn't biased...but we are optimising for whether you attended Eton. Speak to someone who didn't attend Eton or similar, and ask them if you think that is fair.

Btw, I went to a private school and went to a good university (that takes from private schools to a very high degree), and worked as an equity analyst (so meeting C-level execs and fund managers who mostly went to Oxbridge) your views are just generally very very wrong. These people are not capable or unusually smart. They just grew up in a safe environment with class sizes of less than 30 people. And UK management teams are, comparatively, very weak because there is no real meritocracy here. Sure, there are some good managers but this is basically certain in a large enough sample. And if someone has come up the hard way, they are usually a much safer bet. It is kind of crazy that you have picked one of the most busted, unmeritocratic societies in the world...and tried to show how it is actually fair...


I know many US universities correlate the admitted student high scool GPAs and high school attended with how they performed at university, and then use that to handicap new applicants. i.e. Candidates from Public School A with a 4.0 GPA tend to graduate with a 2.9 GPA whereas candidates from Private School B with a 3.0 GPA tend to graduate with a 3.3 GPA

Not only that, it would turns the elite of the country into plebs. We can't have that, can we? Many good jobs in prestigious companies are open first to Ivy League Grads.

"The admissions lottery I envision—which would involve applicants who meet a certain academic threshold—would help universities faced with large numbers of qualified applicants, such as Harvard, admit students in a more equitable way."

The whole point to the modern university application process is they want more axis than academic achievement with which to evaluate prospective students. Did you play and do well in sports? Are you accomplished in any of the arts? Are you a chess master? Did you build a great robot winning several competitions? This is true student diversity, it's not just race and class - and it provides a differentiator between those who just studied and got a perfect SAT score and those with other accomplishments who also happen to have a near-perfect SAT score. The lottery system depicted here is unfair to those students who've gone beyond and accomplished things. We need to recognize accomplishments outside of the classroom are important.


> The lottery system depicted here is unfair to those students who've gone beyond and accomplished things.

Conversely it might take some of the pressure off.

As it stands there's never "enough." With a system that effectively caps you, you get to your lottery tier and can then back off. And considering how much the standards have increased over time to get into a school like this, that may not be a bad thing for mental health.


Would you really want a future Feynman to be playing an admission lottery?

...kinda, yeah. Feynman's an interesting choice of example, actually; he wanted to attend Columbia, couldn't get in because of anti-Semitism, and then attended MIT before it was "MIT, Famous Engineering School", when it was still basically seen as a vocational school for middle-class students. I think the whole higher education system would benefit from having people like that scattered throughout it, rather than concentrated at a handful of elite universities.

The problem isn't that we miss out on some specific genius. The real issue with our system is that we have "Feynmans" working as waiters and driving taxis (and some other countries don't have that system and are maximising their talent).

It is interesting to critique this idea for introducing chance. Pitch this idea to a poor person, pitch this idea to a rich person...that is your answer. It is hard to understand if you grew up with opportunity but for poor people this randomness represents a tremendous improvement. From a system that is designed to crush them, to one in which everyone has the same chance.


Absolutely agree. I don't know how much this particular proposal would help them, though; I think catching those people would require a wholesale overhaul of the educational system: universal free pre-school, standardizing school funding nationwide (and specifically decoupling it from property tax revenue), fully subsidized university education for anyone who wants it...and then lotteries to get into elite schools.

Otherwise, I suspect this would primarily benefit middle class students who can afford to pay for test prep and tutors, but not for a month-long volunteering stint in Nepal, and primarily hurt the relatively-sub-par-but-well-off legacy admits (which, who cares) and students with a lower SES that currently get a boost from consideration for that status/the follow-up effects of growing up and going to school in poor areas (which I do care deeply about).


Yep, I agree. The reason we have this problem at all is because, at least in our part of the world, education isn't well-funded. I think we should still have a lottery system but yes, other stuff will produce better results.

I also think that all the volunteering and whatever should be cut from applications. Who gives a fuck if you played the oboe for ten years? Does that really matter? The point of music is enjoyment, the point of volunteering is to serve other people. I had a friend who was forced to play the saxaphone until university and it was tragic: he wouldn't talk about it, he only played to pass exams, he took no joy from it...like great but if you are being forced to do this then who cares? It has become another way to discriminate...and it isn't that much fun if you are a kid.


Would a future Feynman really do enough extra curricular that have nothing to do with their area of expertise to even get into a school like Harvard? Likely not... If anything a lottery would increase their chances compared to the status quo.

Harvard and similar schools have moved beyond just being smart. Everyone who applies is super smart. Now the yard stick is smart++ (meaning they want you to be "well rounded" which is code for having a bunch of self-driven/extra curriculars/special skills/x-factor etc to make you a stand out).


Do they actually care about extra curriculars though? Cannot remember of a single case in Oxford CS admissions where that was a factor, let alone a deciding factor. Usually those with loads of extra curriculars were not as good as those for whom maths/CS was their true passion. They would look like they had received better admissions interview coaching perhaps, but it was our job to see through that and it was not that difficult to do so.

Not trying to be unkind here, but you keep bringing up examples from Oxford in a discussion about the American higher education system. There's a big difference in culture between the two, and so discussing Oxford as a counterpoint doesn't really make sense. It's not an American outlier, it's a totally different system with its own issues and culture that don't have much to do with this conversation.

And yes, schools in the US do care, deeply, about extracurriculars. Harvard could fill every seat, every year, with the valedictorian of a different high school class. Since nearly every data point is tightly grouped on the most immediately available metric, they turn to other data points to make their decisions. (And there's a long history of using that flexibility for both exclusionary and inclusionary purposes.)


Fair enough. I wrongly assumed that they would have very similar approaches to admissions, but maybe not. If the extracurriculars don't have anything to do with the degree in question, it seems wrong for Harvard to be putting weight on them. Luckily, there are other Universities in the world to choose from.

> If the extracurriculars don't have anything to do with the degree in question, it seems wrong for Harvard to be putting weight on them.

Harvard ran out of other measures. When all of the applicants are capping out every academic measure, you have to start to look beyond.


But do they not interview applicants in person? You can usually tell a lot more about a candidate from an in-person interview than from a written test. For example, how genuinely interested they are in the subject - it is usually hard to fake enthusiasm. How they respond to hints during problem-solving. How excited they are when they get to a solution. How teachable and creative they are. How they think when faced with a kind of problem they (hopefully) had not seen before. Do they actually understand the subject, or do they just have a good memory.

On all these metrics I would be seriously surprised if they have many more amazing applicants than places. If that is in fact the case, they should make more places available. It almost never happens that you get someone that is 10/10/10 on all metrics.


Would you really want a future Feynman to be spending high school rushing between violin lessons, lacrosse practice, model UN and volunteering at the homeless shelter to pad up his college application resume?

That's why I was focusing on accomplishments over activities. You played violin? Great! Were you first chair? Did you ever have a solo at a performance?

You played lacrosse? Awesome! How competitive was your team? How many starts did you have? What are your stats?

I'm not looking for people participating in activities, I'm looking for them succeeding. That should cut down a lot on people rushing around participating in a bunch of activities in order to pad a college resume. You want people who focused on results and had both the talent and tenacity to pursue them. Those are your predictors of future success.


In the aggregate, yes - given the premise that most potential Feynmans are actually underutilized in society because they can't be reliably selected for. Then I think such a system could arguably be a net benefit, with a greater number of non-obvious Feynmans being selected. The very obvious Feynmans will likely be unperturbed by a lottery because the lottery is (hypothetically) per-school, and they have opportunities to shine in whichever school they join.

It's the adage that a metric ceases to be a good measure when it becomes an objective. Students doing x will increase their chance to get admitted at Harvard, parents will force kids to do x to get in, and x ceases to be a measure of extra curricular diversification and being just one more subject in the curriculum.

Any system is going to be unfair to somebody. It could be argued that evaluating students along all these semi-relevant axes like sportsball skills and robot-building is unfair to the people who busted their asses on academic achievement and got perfect SATs. No matter what solution they choose, some group of people will have a legitimate gripe about its fairness.

All of those criteria are quantifiable and can be part of a threshold calculation.

Not really. Is it more impressive to climb the seven summits, or write an original work and have it performed by the New York Philharmonic? These aren't cleanly comparable things (which was always the point, of course; the focus on "more well-rounded students" appeared when elite institutions were worried that academically successful Jewish students were becoming too big a proportion of the student body.[1])

1: http://250.browndailyherald.com/how-1920s-anti-semitism-insp...


You don't have to decide which is more impressive. What you have to decide is how much you want either impression to count for in your threshold score. Does high achievement count for 30%? 50%? 80%? Does it outweigh an utter lack of academic achievement (i.e. could a high achiever in the "soft" achievements hack it in the "hard" subjects, or vice versa?)

Once you've decided the proportions of things like that, this article proposes that it should be purely up to chance via lottery (an assertion I personally agree with.)


Why do you think that diversity of race and class are not true diversity?

I was trying to convey that race and class are factors of diversity, but not the only ones. Sorry if that was unclear.

It's very hard to interpret "This is true student diversity, it's not just race and class" as saying that race and class are factors of so-called "true" diversity, even with when trying to interpret things charitably.

Thanks for clarifying


"just" in this case means "not only"

The article is substantially predicated on a recently published paper[1] which proposes a threshold lottery for university admissions. Among other things, this paper directly kicks off discussion of several basic criticisms that could be levied against lottery-based admission, such as (for example) the definition of fairness.

In particular, note that the definition used in this context is an admission lottery such that, for all applicants at or above an explicit baseline of qualification, each applicant is equi-probable of being admitted. It's also worth noting the author explictly states the system is pragmatic for distinguishing between qualified candidates of increasingly insignificant meritocratic differences; however, it may not be compatible with "general welfare."

1. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/670663?seq=1#page_scan_...


For those who aren't following closely:

Harvard, like many Universities with applications from far more candidates than they can accept, filter applications based on perceived desirability. For example, a student with the same academic background is more likely to get admitted if they come from Wyoming or Maine than New York or California; in the name of having a more diverse student body with more diverse interests and upbringings, rather than just upper-middle-class students from coastal cities.

There is, of course, a racial component to this.

Today, qualified Asian-American applicants are overrepresented as a share of the overall population, due to great academic qualifications.

Harvard has been found to be accepting them at a lower rate than you would expect; if you look into it, there's some "desirability" factor that's bringing them down. Obviously this is very controversial.

"Students for Fair Admissions" was created by Edward Blum, a Neo-Conservative activist and AEI fellow who is well-known for his work against the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for attempting to reduce the population-based power of districts by only counting registered voters as persons, and generally recruiting 'victims' of affirmative action to be subjects of test-case lawsuits in order to advance his political beliefs.


I think there was some studies that showed the share of spots that would have went to Asian Americans effectively transferred to white women. In that sense, not sure if Asian Americans were the only "over-represented" demographic segment.

The problem of college admissions seems similar to the problem of selling tickets to a hot event. The free market solution to selling tickets to, say, a Red Sox game is to charge as much as you possible can until people stop buying tickets. But you get a problem. You make the less wealthy fans very unhappy because they have no choice in being able to attend. This has long term consequences. So the Red Sox, for instance, sell tickets for less than what the market would allow. Then you get the mad rush for the first come, first serve ticket sales.

It might not matter as much to the Red Sox but if your event happens to also depend on the participation of the fans then you want to make sure your event isn’t 100% rich people too.

So basically supply and demand?

The problem is that the usual way of solving the supply and demand problem in the free market has consequences that many people dislike.It doesn't seem fair for only rich people to attend baseball games. It doesn't seem fair for only a select few of those qualified get to go to Harvard.

The best approach would be to stamp the name and date of birth on the tickets. Check ID and DOB at the door.

No ticket scalpers.


This would destroy their business model which is predicated on getting into Harvard being an "expensive signal" of intelligence, industriousness, and future potential, which is why they will never do it. But I agree with the points in the article!

I agree with the premise of the article in that a lottery for those pass a given threshold is the only truly fair wait to admit students to Harvard. The problem I see though is that really doesn't help the image problem of any of these institutions. Simply put if one of your goals is to ensure a diverse student body, unless you start adding quotas and doing a lottery for specific categories (which is largely problematic in and of itself) you are going to end up with a pretty uniform student body. Certain groups of people will be over represented in the pool you are selecting from and thus while any singular student has an equally likely chance to get in, the overall diversity numbers probably aren't going to be so great. Maybe that's fine if it's the most fair way of selecting students but there's definitely an argument that all you are doing is reinforcing the institutional disadvantages of the non wealthy and minorities.

The author's article is on a question that I considered before. I agree with her that it may make the process more 'fair', however, she fails to consider one consequence of a switch to a lotto based system. Namely:

How Much Should a Harvard Lotto Ticket Cost?[0]

The author mentions that "This system would also alleviate the cost to families associated with students applying to increasing numbers of colleges", but I disagree. If you look at the system in terms of expected value, then what should you pay for that lotto ticket? (Note, I'm quoting a bit from my article, please excuse the laziness)

Assume that you are actually applying to Harvard and they actually confess to using randomness in their admissions. Say that they still require a fee to submit your application. Today that fee is sitting at $75.00. Say that the ‘prestige’ of Harvard remains the same after this hypothetical confession to the use of randomness and that today’s median salary for a Harvard grad stays at ~$85,000.00/year.

The questions then is: Should you apply to Harvard and hope to be a random applicant that gets in at the $75.00 price? Should you place a bet?

After you go through the math and stats for a bit, the conclusion is that the price of a Harvard Lotto ticket should be ~$89,823.00 . That's ~1200:1 on your money. You should absolutely apply to Harvard if they held a lotto, and even if the number of applicants rose ~120,000%.

I go through each of the Ivies and there is an update at the bottom on the top Universities and Liberal Arts schools in the US. Spoiler: CMU is not very 'worth it' (still a steal, all the same) and Carleton and Davidson are very 'worth it' for the admissions price.

In the end: Go to college kids. The ROI is insane.

[0] http://heffern.net/rob/index.php/2018/05/18/hello-world/


From a statistical perspective, in a fair random lottery, would not the shape of the probability distribution of attributes of winners necessarily match that of the resulting qualified applicants?

If fairness is defined in this approach as a process that does not add information to the system, and in this case actually removes both information (bias) and noise (bias) equally, all it would serve to do is further obfuscate the cause of being admitted.

For an admissions lottery to be considered "fair," you have to assume the participant selection is fair, and that the functioning of the university itself is indifferent to who it gets. Maybe they should A/B test it, where some are admitted at random and their success compared against the traditional admissions process. Arguably, that's even what "legacy," students provide, a sample independent of the admissions process.

That we're having this discussion at all is a greater indicator of the waning of the university system as meaningful process, and how undergraduate education is subject to Goodhart's Law, where it has ceased to be a useful measure of aptitude, competence, or much at all anymore really.


I don't really follow your first two paragraphs. I don't know about the ultimate utility of this system, but I don't think it exhibits the statistical properties you're saying it does.

In a threshold-based admission lottery, everyone more than k sigma from the mean (for example) is collapsed into the same category, such that information distinguishing them is lost. But the implicit premise to this system is that you can't accurately measure the distinctions between those deviations anyway.

Given that premise, you're not adding noise to the system, though you are removing information. I think the claim under question is that trying to precisely measure people more than k sigma from the mean is intrinsically noisy and prone to spurious correlation with academic success. So then you'd also be removing noise under this system.

So I think your point of contention should be with the premise if you disagree with it, because I don't think we can really argue about statistical properties of the lottery distribution until we first settle on the underlying axioms.


The point I meant to raise was that the underlying axiom of the piece is that the lottery is fair, when the mechanism for that fairness is simply removing information. There are lots of reasons for it, but a lottery is a fig leaf.

The proportion of input students of a type will be the same as in the the output of a fair lottery. Appeals to randomness just forfeit responsibility and ownership of the decision.


Who says that the threshold, as measured by e.g. SAT scores, is a good threshold for a good measure?

There is a way to settle the fairness of process: re-run admissions process where all data points that indicate demographics are scrubbed (name, ethnic organization memberships, etc). See if the admission rates change.

I've said this before and I've said it again - I'm genuinely not sure about why we invest so much mental anguish about discussing $ELITE_SCHOOL's admissions process at all. If we're talking about opportunity, shouldn't we instead aim to provide opportunity for the 99.9% of people that either can't (me), or didn't go to the same handful of elite universities?

Well, the cynical answer is that the elite schools churn out the people who go into the media, government, and various other halls of power, so a lot of the chatter is actual graduates of these schools discussing their own alma maters, and they've essentially worn down the rest of us into caring. But a slightly less cynical take is that this stuff all trickles down through the rest of the higher education system, because of the aforementioned dispersal of elite university grads into positions of power, so fixing the culture at those elite schools would probably result in positive changes in the institutions they influence.

Harvard doesn't have an admissions problem, they have an image problem that was brought to light by a controversial lawsuit. The institution known as Harvard is basically a massive investment firm that just so happens to run a school -- if Harvard's (and other elite, mega wealthy colleges) stated mission was to promote general education they could open up additional campuses and increase admissions without sacrificing much in the way of educational quality. Even if Harvard was half the school it is today it would still be a fantastic education.

Harvard is trying to have it's cake and eat it too with it's selection process, there are a set amount of priorities they have with each class and need to balance these priorities out, namely: Admit enough legacy / wealthy students to placate the donor class, have a relatively diverse set of kids so that they can claim diversity, grab some kids with "exceptional talent" (maybe a great musician here and there) and pad out the rest with kids that have perfect SAT scores.

I honestly don't think this is a problem that can be solved. Harvard deliberately caps the amount of students they accept and their capacity to accept these students to maintain it's elite reputation, combine that with the fact that their student body needs to reflect the principles they tell the world (diversity more so that absolute quality) and you will have situations like this.


This is not a new idea. It has been generally suspected for years that Harvard selects students by throwing their applications down a flight of stairs and seeing who lands on the right step. As far as I can tell, it's working just fine for them.

I’ve heard that with the size of Harvard’s endowment, it would be trivial to cover the costs of tuition for all students. Pitching random admissions as a cost cutting measure seems unconvincing against this backdrop.

Would it be a problem to remove all identity categories (name/legacy/gender/ethnicity/origin/etc) of applicants and simply admit the most qualified students?

"simply admit the most qualified students" is the "assume a spherical cow" of the college admissions discussion.

For the record, this is also an assumption that the "coding interviews are bogus" crowd makes too.

Why?

Is this not supposed to be an elite university for elite students?


Well, that's certainly what Harvard would argue, although a lot of people might disagree, but even if we accept their/your framing, that doesn't solve the issue. You're throwing around "most qualified" and "elite students" like those are settled terms of art, rather than the heart of contention in an argument that's more than a century old.

Imagine two hypothetical students. One student graduated with a 4.3 by taking advanced courses at a high school where every student gets between a 3.5 and a 4.5 thanks to some combination of intelligence, good funding, grade inflation, and a parent population who can pay for a new wing or two if it means junior will graduate on time. The other student graduated with a 3.8 from an underfunded high school on Chicago's South side, where the average class size was 30+, the textbooks are 20 years old, and the average annual family income is around $30k. Which one of those students is more elite? Which one is more qualified?

Zion Williamson is currently a student and a basketball player at Duke University. He's 6'8", weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 280 lbs., and a few days ago he had a highlight where he started from under the hoop, sprinted out towards the three point line some 22 feet away, leapt towards a player on that line who was taking a shot, blocked the shot in mid-air, and landed without touching the shooter. The number of people in the United States with that combination of size, speed, and skill is in the single digits. The number of people in the world might - might - be in the triple digits. Is he an elite student? If so, is he more or less elite than the other students in the previous paragraph?

There isn't a clean metric for most qualified or most elite, and there really can't be, because the world doesn't neatly standardize like that. It's a symptom of insufficient consideration of the problem to suggest that fixing a massive and massively flawed system is super simple and just requires One Neat Trick that the thousands of people who have been thinking about and working on this for decades haven't considered.


> There isn't a clean metric for most qualified or most elite, and there really can't be

For an academic institution or an athletic endeavor, I completely disagree. Performance in these environments is measurable. Elite performance is obvious, observable, and measurable.

Should a theoretical elite university basketball team sign and start a 4'11 80lbs person who makes 1% of shots and has only played basketball maybe a half dozen times before total but they happen to be the very best player from their school? What if they're technically the best basketball player in their schools history? Are they therefore an elite basketball player, and an elite performer? I would say no, observably and measurably not.


Harvard doesn’t have an admissions problem. It’s a highly successful institution, that has lasted for hundreds of years and is not public.

Meaning - they clearly are doing something correct and are not beholden to what we feel is “fair”. They aren’t doing anything illegal, so there is no problem.

Perhaps it doesn’t jive with some sensibilities, but it’s not their responsibility to cater to anyone’s sensibilities. The institutions purpose is to grow and support its pupils. Then it’s pupils pay dividends back to the institution. Anything counter to that, really doesn’t make sense.


In its hundred of years history, its admission system has been discriminating against minorities, going far beyond what only those with "sensibilities" would care about.

Recently it has been well documented how Asians have a tougher admission than white Americans. Until the 1930s, and possibly longer, they had a Jewish quota. While Jim Crow laws were being dismantled, there was 1 (one) black student in the 1958-class. Then there was the gender quotas.

Harvard - as other private universities - are benefiting from favorable tax treatment, and from society acknowledging their education for a number of different professions (law and medicine are obvious examples). But even without that, society has a legitimate interest in regulating against discrimination in private universities.


> Perhaps it doesn’t jive with some sensibilities, but it’s not their responsibility to cater to anyone’s sensibilities.

Whether or not someone or some organization is successful, for some definition of success, is a very different question of whether they are behaving morally. And yes, the public certainly can and should point out immoral actions by such institutions. There are countless examples of companies and governments that were successful with some policy that was widely regarded as immoral.


> They aren’t doing anything illegal

Isn't there an active lawsuit claiming their use of race in the admissions process crosses the line?


Yes, a conservative activist has recruited test-case students as plaintiffs in lawsuits designed to strike down affirmative action.

If the merits of the case are justified, what does it matter whether an "activist" is involved or what his politics might be?

I personally don't know if such a lawsuit exists. However, if it hasn't been settled in favor of the plaintiff, and no other such lawsuits have been settled in favor of the plaintiff, then they aren't doing anything illegal.

> if it hasn't been settled in favor of the plaintiff...then they aren't doing anything illegal.

Wouldn't that mean that they haven't yet been determined to be doing anything illegal? If you do things against the law they're still illegal even if you haven't been caught.


Semantics aside, I subscribe to the innocent until proven guilty school of thought.

I'm pretty sure Harvard benefits from tax breaks on the donations it receives. The tax breaks are on the donor's side, but the economic effect is the same as channeling public money to the institution (it simply takes the form of foregone tax revenue).

》 Meaning - they clearly are doing something correct

Good/Correct as in a self subsidized oligarchy?


Or they could just admit more students..

"Special status may also be given to increase opportunity for underrepresented groups, in the interest of campus diversity." That's all fine and dandy as long as people still enter by own merit and not to artificially inflate diversity, which seems like an ongoing trend in American academia.

“Increasing opportunities” and “artificially inflating diversity” are effectively two different definitions of the same thing. It may be a good or a bad thing, but we can’t have one without the other.

Fairer? Yes. Better? No.

The college application process screens for more than just measured ability, and forcing colleges to take on people who aren't a good culture fit changes the experience at that college for the worse.


It may change the culture at some schools. Whether that would be better or worse remains an open question.

Many of the Ivies admit that they have multiple freshmen classes worth of qualified applicants every year.

The lottery doesn't mean everyone who applies gets the exact same chance. It could choose among the qualified, perhaps using some sort of weighted system.


When I was in high school there were exactly 4 people in the country with perfect SAT scores. Now, according to the article, there are thousands. Maybe they could start there.

And just to stave off the criticisms - yes, they made the test much easier.


The article mentions perfect math SAT scores. A perfect SAT score is much more rare.

> Maybe they could start there.

A lot of kids take those tests. The fact that there are thousands of perfect scores isn't necessarily a problem as long as the score distribution looks reasonable, right?


The true solution though, would be for people to wake up and realize that in most cases, those so-called "ivy-league" colleges set you up for nothing you couldn't have gotten elsewhere. That you're NOT in-fact better off at 22 with a 150,000$ debt, which you could've avoided by attending a different institute. That the quality of education in "less prestigeous" universities doesn't necessarily "fall" from that of Harvard's.

Edit: Addressing the comments about how it's all about joining that Alumni circle.

I've attended an ivy-league alumni dinner party recently (graduates from multiple "high profile", internationally acknowledged institutes). Save for several senior people with interesting stories, most others were working on their "next Lyft"/"next Airbnb"/"Facebook for %s"/"%s but with AI!" startups. Everybody had a suit and a nice lapel pin to show for it though. Some even wore a bow-tie, no less!

At some point it stops being a club of outstanding members of society, and instead, it becomes a "I took a huge loan to buy my way into this" club. Make of it what you will.


This is a misconception that kind of bugs me. At the top schools they give a tremendous amount of need-based grants (i.e. money that never needs to be paid back). Elite institution grads are not the ones who have debt they can't pay back. Its people at middle of the road private institutions and many other scenarios that have this issue. You are confusing the sticker price with what the bulk of non-rich students actually pay which is far lower. This narrative bugs me because it is just incorrect and focuses on the wrong places as sources of a very real issue.

> would be for people to wake up and realize ... nothing you couldn't have gotten elsewhere

The whole point of this song and dance with Harvard is that the education alone isn't the point of going to Harvard. You can probably learn most of what Harvard teaches from free sources online + youtube lectures.

An exclusive club grants you great networking potential, which is why people want to go, and why Harvard wants to keep strict control over who/how it lets people in. If they didn't exert Quality Control over the network, their primary selling point would be weakened. If you go to Harvard and pay full price with merely the intent of getting an education, you've totally missed the point and they probably don't want you.

Harvard knows this and is uncomfortable saying it out loud, and its also the reason for this ongoing mess.

(If Harvard truly believed that they were giving a world class education and that the education made all the difference and made the world a better place, they'd use their gobs of money to expand and teach more people. This would ruin the exclusivity.)


Is that actually correct? I'm speculating here because I don't have data on hand one way or the other, but I think that college attendance in the Ivy league (and MIT, Stanford, etc) strongly correlates with significantly higher lifetime income.

I agree with you that the quality of education is maybe not worth the price compared to a UC say, but at the highest tiers (say top 10), the network and the name alone will get you pretty far. Also, if you're close to prodigy level in your field, then it's probably worth it to go to the best schools.

The people who are really screwed are those who paid $50k a year for a low-demand major at some private school no one's heard of.


> nothing you couldn't have gotten elsewhere

Well, for example prestigious clerk positions are filled from Yale Law and Harward students. If you study law elsewhere, the most ambitious positions are effectively closed. Look at supreme court and see which school are represented.

Ivy league causes people trust you more. There are prestigious places that stock from almost exclusively from those schools.

So yeah, it attracts all those highly ambitious kids for a reason.


Going to college isn't all about "quality of education"; it's also about networking and building connections. Plenty of State Universities provide a high-quality education, but don't offer the same opportunities to build connections to elites, future elites, and their families.

The education isn't anything special. For certain circles, though, the status of an ivy sheepskin is of utmost importance. State U isn't good enough for the silver spoons. Harvard is also not indebting those lucky enough to attend given it's generous scholarships.

The value in elite universities is the network

People who go to HYS et al. aren't paying for the quality of education; they're paying for the signaling device and the network opportunities.



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