Should Ivy League Schools Randomly Select Students (At Least for a Little While)?

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From mid-December through the end of March, tens of thousands of high-school seniors around the country will endure the torture of waiting to hear whether they have been accepted to college. The current admissions season is unfolding now amid a pandemic that has only intensified inequities in an education system that has relentlessly favored the well-off and aggressively prepared.

Left with the deficiencies of remote learning, school districts around the country have been reporting soaring instances of failing grades. Recently in a Zoom call with parents, a Brooklyn charter school principal noted that approximately 40 percent of students were failing at least one class this term. In St. Paul, Minn., more than a third of grades for high-school students have plummeted to the lowest point, nearly double the number in a normal year.

Students coming out of private schools in New York or affluent suburban districts this year, and perhaps for the next several, are likely to find themselves on the receiving end of even more advantage than the system already affords them, simply by having had the benefit of more live instruction. In these schools, money and space have allowed for the hiring of supplemental staff and the kind of accommodations for social distancing that have made the actual classroom experience possible. Schools with campuses have been able to teach children outdoors.

There are several other reasons the privileged will, inevitably, see only more gains. Jeffrey Selingo, author of the book “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,’’ has argued that the uncertainties of the Covid period will predictably lead admissions officers in the direction of the familiar, toward students from schools with long histories of successfully sending their charges to the most selective colleges.

Given the difficulties of administering standardized tests during the current crisis, 500 colleges and universities have waived the SAT as a requirement for admission. While that might seem like a welcome curative for so much anxiety, in the absence of test scores (as well as so many extracurricular activities that have fallen by the wayside since the onset of the coronavirus) a capable student from a little-known school in the South Bronx may be more challenging to evaluate. Conversely, the senior from Collegiate — an Upper West Side private school that has been sending boys to Harvard for 392 years — becomes something like the reliably comforting menu item for the diner averse to anything different.

For the most part, the country’s top private colleges and universities have met the moment of explosive social reckoning this year with the earnest rhetoric of avowal and commitment to further the work of diversity, equity and inclusion (“DEI,” in occupational parlance). They have turned to panels and subcommittees and task forces and the renaming of buildings implicating odious histories with no apparent impulse to relinquish status as some of the most exclusive institutions on earth.

It is hard to miss the paradox of an approach professing fidelity to the work of heightening access as it remains fundamentally wedded to the business of rejection. A school’s prestige is embedded in saying no. Last year, the Ivy League on average said no to 94 percent of those who applied. “A metric uniquely rewarding how many qualified applicants an institution can turn away,’’ remarked Anthony Marx, the former president of Amherst College who is now the chief executive of the New York Public Library, “surely produces absurd behavior and results in the extreme.”

In the world of higher education, the real work of diversity, equity and inclusion would demand a radical rethinking of admissions. It would extend beyond scholarships and financial aid to students from low-income families, who are still expected to excel in environments with countless obstacles to their ambitions. Over the past quarter-century, the notion of admitting students to elite colleges by lottery has been floated in op-eds with some regularity, never getting any real traction and generally with the understanding that the students whose names would be pulled out of the hat, already met the basic outlines of a school’s exacting academic criteria.

But what if — even as a temporary measure to try and rectify some of the injustices of a pandemic that has left so many with so much less — these schools deployed their enormous resources to randomly select students from a vast pool that included more than merely the exceptionally credentialed? What if elite colleges chose students whose resilience had so far eluded them? Whose schoolwork went off the rails during an epic crisis in which they were forced to work because parents lost their jobs? A revolution in the name of fairness would seem to require, at the minimum, the abandonment of perfection as a baseline, an understanding that failure is not the assassin of potential.

For decades, struggling community colleges have done the hard work of remediation for students coming out of high schools ill equipped to give them the skills they need to thrive after graduation. What if that work, all too often stymied by a punishing lack of resources, shifted instead to schools with multibillion-dollar taxpayer-subsidized endowments?

Even if the country’s most prestigious colleges and universities committed to accepting a vastly higher number of transfer students from community colleges, they would be providing much greater social good. In 2016, Princeton decided to accept transfer students after a 26 year moratorium. Last year the university, which has a $27 billion endowment, issued a news release announcing that it had accepted transfer students with a focus on veterans and community college graduates: It admitted 13 of them.

When she assumed the office of the presidency at Brown University in 2001, Ruth Simmons said in an inauguration speech that it was an important goal of hers to bring more community college students to the university. Throughout her 11-year tenure, Dr. Simmons, now the president of Prairie View A&M in Texas (a historically Black college to which MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, pledged a $50 million gift this week) tried to push her colleagues in the Ivy League to open themselves to these nontraditional students.

“I would say, ‘If we were to collectively agree to make space for community college students, think of how much better our relationship to the rest of the country would be,’” she told me. But it proved to be a difficult road. “The noise from people who feel entitled to Harvard or Brown is tremendous.”

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