Why Not a Lottery to Get Into UC?

	           Los Angeles Times Op-Ed
                      January 24, 1995
          (see 1999 addendum at the end of this Web page)

                        Norman Matloff
Affirmative action is fast becoming one of the hot-button issues of 1995. The University of California Board of Regents has now joined the fray, announcing that it will re-examine affirmative action policies in UC admissions. Yet, affirmative action remains sound in concept, and could be handled sensibly. In particular, the regents would do well to consider a lottery-based admissions policy.

In the area of admissions to academic institutions (our focus here, which differs from the workplace), affirmative action has seen some abominable implementations. For instance, the (court-ordered) admissions policy for San Francisco's prestigious Lowell High School is so overtly race-conscious that it even invents its own "races," setting criteria for Chinese American applicants that are different from those for other Asian American applicants. Yet Americans are, I think, in general agreement that all of us, not just the poor or disfranchised, lose when society's underclass grows and becomes increasingly distant from the rest of the population. When implemented well, affirmative action can help to remedy this problem.

But shouldn't the best-qualified applicants be given priority? The answer to this question requires a critical examination of just what is meant by "best qualified."

First, one must keep in mind that neither SAT scores nor any other numeric measure will be a very accurate predictor of future grades. It thus makes no sense to admit one applicant over another simply because the first applicant had slightly higher test scores.

Sadly, many of the students (and even their parents) do not see it this way. They view it like the Olympics, where being a 10th of a second faster can mean gold instead of silver. But what on Earth is the relevance of the Olympics to school admissions?

Many students who complain about affirmative action in university admission policies feel that higher SAT scores give one some inherent "right" to admission to a famous school. But when I ask whether they take advantage of the special virtues of such a school--do they attend the public lectures by world figures who visit, do they make use of the extensive library facilities, do they make it a point to take courses from Nobel laureates--the answer is almost invariably no. On the contrary, these students usually admit that they simply want the prestigious name that the school offers. With such a confession, they clearly lose any right to the moral high ground they claim on the basis of something like SAT scores.

The case of Lowell High School mentioned earlier is even murkier. Its principal, Paul Cheng, says that one of the main factors behind the fervent desires of parents to get their kids into Lowell is the school's wide variety of advanced placement (AP) courses. These prepare students to take national AP examinations that, if passed, grant college credit. The attraction of this, Cheng points out, is parental savings in college-tuition dollars. In that case, maybe admissions priority for Lowell should be given to students intending to study at expensive colleges, rather than applicants with higher test scores.

That last suggestion is of course intended to be facetious. Yet it again illustrates that "merit" is an ill-defined concept with ill-defined social goals.

On the other hand, numeric measures do have some power in predicting success at a school. And make no mistake about it --it is undesirable to admit someone who is "not in the same league" with typical students at that school. Admitting students with little hope of success makes it difficult for faculty to assign challenging work to their classes, for example. And more important, it sets up the unprepared students for failure. This is anathema to a central goal of affirmative action, which is to build self-esteem, not destroy it. Thus, some threshold values should be established for numerics such as SAT scores, below which there is little expectation of success at this school. But, after having set such threshold values, there is, except for very special cases, really no defensible reason for further comparison of test scores among applicants.

Once the applicant pool has been narrowed in this manner, a sensible policy would be that school admissions officers use a lottery for selecting applicants. At most schools, this would produce the desired diversity in race and gender that affirmative action advocates consider so important. But at the same time such a procedure would be simple, fair and race/gender-blind, which would go a long way toward answering affirmative action's critics.

Epilogue (added September 1998 by NM):

A few months after I published this article in early 1995, the UC Board of Regents eliminated racial and gender preferential policies in UC admissions and hiring. A year later, in 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, which eliminated racial and gender preferential policies in other state and local programs. It should be kept in mind that Prop. 209 had no effect on UC, as the elimination of preference policies had already occurred a year earlier, via the regental order. The major effect of Prop. 209 was thus not on UC admissions but on state/local government hiring and contracting. The press often makes incorrect statements in this regard.

Clearly the proposal I made in the article above is race-neutral, and thus consistent with both the regental order and Prop. 209. The ideas in this proposal have subsequently been used by Urban League president Hugh Price, civil rights advocate Lani Guanier and UC Berkeley ethnic studies professors Ling-Chi Wang and Ronald Takaki, and I am still hopeful that the proposal may be eventually implemented at UC.

I would hope that other schools, such as Lowell High School cited above, would also find this proposal useful. It ought to satisfy even the Chinese-American critics of Lowell's present policy (who have sued the school district), since under the plan I've outlined above Chinese enrollment at Lowell would increase, due to the very large number of Chinese applicants.

In February 1999, a black/Latino/Filipino coalition filed a suit against UC Berkeley's admissions policies. One of their central complaints was that UCB credits an A grade in Advanced Placement (AP) courses with 5 points instead of the usual 4. This results in many applicants having grade point averages well above 4.0, putting students from high schools which offer very few or no AP courses at a disadvantage; some of the individual plaintiffs in the lawsuit were students who had perfect 4.0 grades at their high schools but who had no access to AP courses. One of the more startling statistics claimed in the suit was that 50% of UCB's students come from only 5% of the state's high schools.

This lawsuit dovetails with my LA Times op-ed above in two ways. First it illustrates the fact that many (some say most) students are taking AP courses simply for gamesmanship purposes, i.e. to increase their chances of being admitted into prestigious schools, rather than for the original intention of AP, which was to provide additional intellectual stimulation to the better students.

Second, the suit shows just how disinterested university administrators are in carefully examining the issues of goals underlying their admissions policies. Their only goal seems to be to make the selection procedures as numeric-based as possible, in order to placate the angry parents who object when their children are not admitted to UCB---even if some of those numbers have very little meaning.

Accordingly, the administrators seem to have given no thought at all as to what possible academic meaning these AP courses have, even in their own stated terms (which I do not fully accept anyway) of projecting how well a student may do at Berkeley. The fact that a student with AP credit can skip a couple of courses at UCB has no bearing on the student's qualifications to attend the school.