Fear And Loathing In Lottery Admissions

Last time I mentioned growing up watching the PBS affiliate in Buffalo, NY. In part that’s because I was a nerd, but also because, across the border, TV was pretty much limited to the Canadian Broadcast Corporation. Long before Schitt’s Creek, whether we watched the CBC in English or French, Canada’s government-funded broadcaster served up a homogeneous but wholesome blend of news, nature, and new versions of Anne of Green Gables.

So it was mind-blowing when the CBC began airing The Kids in the Hall, a revolutionary sketch comedy show targeting anyone in power (or who thought they had power), including the CBC. While satirizing one’s employer might not be the best approach to job security, the Kids never let up. Nowhere is that clearer than in Screw You Taxpayer, a sketch that was alternatively morbid, nonsensical, crude, and racist for the sole purpose of having Mark McKinney walk towards the camera, break the fourth wall, and say “Wow, what a bad sketch. And in such poor taste, too. You know, we’re going to get a lot of phone calls and letters about this one. And why not? Because every Canadian has a right to complain about that sketch. Because every Canadian owns a piece of that sketch.” McKinney then points to a chart showing how tax dollars fund the CBC and “the budget of that sketch, and… this piece I’m doing now, which we call [cut to studio audience yelling] SCREW YOU TAXPAYER.” The sketch then explains exactly how much taxpayer money was wasted on props, actors, and the studio audience – undermining not just the CBC, but the very idea of the CBC, on the CBC, paid for by the CBC. Satire at its finest.

Satire has a proud history, from Aristophanes to Jonathan Swift who, in A Modest Proposal, famously floated the idea of solving Irish poverty by having the Irish sell their children as food for the rich. Sadly, the great satirists of yesteryear have been supplanted by trolls. But just as a broken clock is right twice a day, even the most racist, conspiracist troll can occasionally come up with useful satire.

Of course, I’m talking about Tucker Carlson. Last week, Rupert Murdoch’s #1 troll unleashed on elite colleges in a commentary titled The Trouble with America’s Class System. Carlson starts with the premise that while elites have fomented a revolution of diversity, equity, and inclusion [DEI], the elite universities at the heart of revolution aren’t serious about diversity. How do we know? Carlson says because the students admitted by elite universities are “rich kids from rich families who plan on staying rich”:

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Before Covid, the median family income in the United States was about $65,000 a year. At Yale, it’s three times that. The median family income of a Yale University student is $192,000 a year. At the University of Pennsylvania, it’s $196,000 a year. At Brown University in Providence, it’s $204,000… [These schools] can afford to educate poor kids. They just choose not to.

Even a troll can occasionally come up with useful satire.

Elite universities don’t really care about diversifying their “prestigious campuses,” lectures Carlson in classic Fox News condescending style, “because, in real life, let’s be honest, the lack of diversity is the real reason people go there in the first place… the point of going to Yale is to cement your position as a credentialed member of America’s ruling class… That effect is real, and it lasts for generations. When you go to Yale, your grandkids probably won’t have to work construction.”

Tucker’s Swiftian suggestion to forestall violent revolution is as follows:

Beginning immediately the top ranked 50 colleges and universities in America should be prohibited, by force of law if necessary, from accepting students whose parents or grandparents went to college. Harvard should be reserved exclusively for students who’ve never experienced the many advantages of living in a ruling class. If you’re for diversity, equity, and inclusion, there’s no faster way to achieve it than this.

Carlson is about as serious as Swift was about eating the Irish. Either that, or it’s an ingenious ploy to bolster the stature of his alma mater, Trinity College. (Under Carlson’s plan, the 51st-ranked college would be really hard to get into. One might expect to see schools like USC tanking in the rankings to get below #50, like professional sports teams gunning for a #1 draft pick – I mean professional sports teams besides USC.) But he makes a point. The current system of college admissions has allowed people with a lot of money to segregate themselves at elite schools and perpetuate inequality. While the reason is less Carlson’s alleged diabolical social engineering than operating budgets that demand students who can pay full price, the end result is the same. There’s just enough racial diversity, but much less economic diversity: a rich broth salted with a sprinkling of Pell. While the middle class is increasingly MIA across America, it’s been missing from top colleges and universities for nearly a generation. As a result, top universities have virtually no political support on the right, and waning support on the left.

The Varsity Blues scandal continues to reverberate and will return to the fore when the documentary from the filmmaker behind Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened and Tiger King debuts on Netflix on March 17. And Covid has only intensified the competitive pressures that led so many wealthy parents to cheat and break the law, with applications to the most famous colleges up by eye-watering percentages. Of course, Carlson and others would contend that cheating is built into the current system: there’s an entire industry of expensive college-application-enriching-experiences, admissions counselors, and test prep at the beck and call of families with sufficient means.

So it’s been refreshing to see the slow motion car crash of standardized testing, a broken pillar of a broken admissions system. Last spring, the University of California Board of Regents declared it would abandon the SAT and ACT in favor of either a new test, or nothing at all. Then Covid quickly persuaded every other school to go test optional. Although no one believes test optional solves the problem this year or any year, for many well-heeled families who benefited from the Ancien Régime, this year’s admissions decisions may feel a bit more random, like putting it all on red.

There’s little question that millions of students are qualified for the relatively few seats at our most famous schools, including more than enough children of parents who never attended college. So one trending idea makes Carlson’s proposal seem positively judicious. Lottery admissions are already here for elite public high schools, Fairfax County, VA’s magnet high school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, now holds a lottery for 80% of its places. Last month, the San Francisco school board decided that Lowell, the City’s all-academic high school which counts among its alumni Justice Stephen Breyer, would move to lottery admissions. Other cities like New York are moving along the same trajectory.

Credible critics on both the left and right have proposed lottery admissions as a solution to a selective college admissions system that is obviously unfair and socially destructive. But are lottery admissions the only solution for Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford? Or are there better ways to stop the violent revolution Tucker Carlson professes to want to avoid, but is almost certainly quite jazzed about?

One admittedly immodest proposal is for top colleges to dramatically expand capacity. Last year I argued that by properly valuing learning and skill-building and ceasing to over-index campus life – by following the Canadian model (but without the green gables) – our most selective schools could increase capacity by a factor of four. And teaching and learning wouldn’t have to look much different (i.e., not online).

A second idea is to force institutions to differentiate from one another so there’d be less of a clear pecking order, and hundreds of schools would rise to the top of their respective categories. With an unprecedented push from regional accreditors, colleges could be forced to take a stand on differentiating factors like credentials, assessment, technology, work-integrated learning, upside down degrees, on-ramps, off-ramps, and maybe even sticker price. But with uniform accreditation processes leading to isomorphic results, meaningful differentiation among elite four-year institutions remains wishful thinking.

A third option is to shift admissions from measuring absolute achievement at point of application to distance traveled. The challenge is that it’s extremely difficult to distill how far an applicant has traveled given the limited bandwidth of admissions offices and the many factors involved. And as evidenced by the College Board’s ill-fated attempt to launch an adversity score, no one besides me seems to think distance traveled should be quantified. So we remain in the netherworld of holistic review, which is supposed to mean every factor is considered, but really means other factors are considered if grades permit and/or if the applicant clearly falls into a desirable bucket. However, new models for tracking achievement in high school like mastery transcripts provide some hope that admissions offices might one day be able to move beyond coachable point-in-time metrics.

None of the above will occur in time to avoid satire and perhaps lottery admissions. But avoiding a lottery is worth the work. We all deal with a certain level of randomness. Luck plays a big role in our economic trajectories. But it can’t only be about luck. After the events of the past year, members of Gen Z already feel as though they have too little control over their own lives. Lottery admissions would add insult to injury and increase the likelihood of a Lost Generation. (The randomness of World War I might have been great for modernist art and literature, but not for the people who lived through it.) Las Vegas casinos are fun to visit (except perhaps during a pandemic), but you wouldn’t want to live there.

To achieve an admissions system that’s more fair and less random, here’s a proposal that’s actually modest in comparison. Last month, the New York Times profiled a college bridge program run by the National Education Equity Lab. The program enrolls students from high-poverty high schools in Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and Howard online courses to demonstrate they can do the work. Participating colleges say they’re excited about adding a new highly relevant academic measurement. But the program will only reach 1,500 students this year. And that’s par for the course, so to speak; historically, bridge programs have been small, run by nonprofits like the Equity Lab and QuestBridge. So only the luckiest diverse applicants cross a bridge. Ivy League schools neither organize nor fund bridge programs; they’re passive beneficiaries.

But what if each and every one of Tucker Carlson’s top 50 colleges were to launch a comprehensive bridge program? Not only allowing prospective applicants at select high schools to demonstrate academic bona fides, but also leveraging current students to guide participants via a state-of-the-art mentoring platform like PeopleGrove. (As part of a service learning requirement, students at top universities could coach students from a high school in their city or region through coursework. Disclosure: My firm, University Ventures, has a small investment in PeopleGrove.)

If top colleges were serious about diversity, they’d dedicate the resources and leverage technology to launch major new bridge initiatives. With a coordinated effort, it’s not crazy to believe that every high school in America could have at least one integrated bridge program (online courses + mentoring) with a highly selective college or university. The result would foster a much greater sense of accessibility, socioeconomic mobility, and – via a new academic metric that is neither point-in-time nor coachable, and with feedback from an informed, impartial coach – put us firmly on a road to a student body that reflects the country more than the country’s elite.

Technology will continue to drive inequality. But technology can also be used to extinguish the accelerant of elite college admissions. By scaling integrated bridge programs to thousands of truly diverse high schools, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford can democratize admissions, at least enough to stop the satire. Trolls like Tucker Carlson are looking for something to do; let’s build them bridges they can go live under. Until we do, running a top 50 university is a risky game, like putting it all on red or playing the lottery.

I am the author of College Disrupted (2015) and A New U: Faster Cheaper Alternatives to College (2018). I’m also an investor reimagining the future of higher education

 

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