Feb 26, 2013

A role for chance?

Commentary

Joshua Freedman

Everyone who gets into an elite university, including our own, probably feels at one time or another that they were deserving of meriting acceptance into the school, and that the admissions committee did not reach this decision lightly.  A highly revealing article published by Ron Unz in The American Conservative entitled “The Myth of American Meritocracy” calls this assumption into question. In this piece, Unz raises uncomfortable questions by parsing vast amounts of data to show that certain racial and ethnic groups are disadvantaged by standard admission practices (at least in Ivy League schools), and generally calls into question the utility of an admissions committee at all.

While focusing on how many ethnic groups are disadvantaged by admission committees, Unz’s clearest example of discriminatory practices are those that relate to Asian-Americans. He points to a troubling fact that since 1993, Ivy League acceptance of Asian-Americans has declined from 20 per cent to 17 per cent, despite a growing population and increases in household income. Though they comprise only four to five per cent of the U.S. population, Unz notes that Asian-Americans make up about 30 per cent of high school National Merit Scholars, and form the majority of participants in high-level math and physics competitions.

Statistically speaking, Asian-Americans must score 140 points higher on their SATs to be given the same standing as white counterparts. All else equal, it seems that Asian Americans should form a larger proportion of the student population than they currently do. So what is leading to this impasse?

[pullquote]By indulging in chance and eliminating bias, universities will see many salutatory benefits.[/pullquote]

It is obvious that if some groups are being under-represented, then there are other groups who are the exact opposite. While not assigning any nefarious motives, Unz points out that the American Jewish population is likely over-populated in the Ivy Leagues. This is the case for a combination of reasons, he concludes, including Jewish academic merit, prior guilt from excluding Jews from Ivy Leagues, and the prevalence of Jews in high administrative positions in elite universities. Unz speculates that this mix of factors has allowed subtle biases to influence the admissions process, stymieing the chances for other groups to be admitted into these schools.

Unz’s solution is simple. Admit certain clearly deserving students to fill a small portion of your class, such as those who have won various academic awards or achieved a perfect SAT score. For the more difficult task of filling in the majority of an incoming class, Unz suggests setting a minimum threshold of acceptability, and then picking students through a lottery system. By indulging in chance and eliminating bias, universities will see many salutatory benefits. While the selection process would not be a perfect meritocracy, it would bring the schools closer to reaching this stated goal. Secondly, Unz hypothesizes that students would feel more humble about getting into these elite schools, knowing that their acceptance was predicated on chance, and laying waste to the notion that getting into a top school is completely merit-based.

Luckily, many of these afflictions found in the United States do not plague McGill, at least not to the same extent. In Fall 2009, McGill admitted 48 per cent of students, a rate much higher than the Ivy Leagues, and with less selectivity comes a lesser chance of applying under-the-table admissions practices. However, Unz’s idea to introduce lottery based admissions schemes could have a great benefit. First, this idea could save the university money by eliminating some of its admissions committee. McGill administration staff, which includes its admissions committee, made approximately $22 million in salary, according to the 2011 McGill budget. A computer is a lot cheaper than a staff of workers, and—if Unz is right—possibly more effective. Second, a lottery would eliminate any chance of overt or hidden biases affecting the chances of a student getting into McGill. In a field where picking students to attend your university is more of an art than a science, maybe it’s time to lay our fates in the hands of chance.

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