Lotteries in Admissions to Academies

by Harry on September 29, 2005

When I first started arguing for lotteries in admissions to oversubscribed schools, I was ridiculed on 2 grounds — that it was wrong and that it was politically unfeasible — ridiculous, in fact. I disagreed that it was wrong, but thought it worth having the argument. I agreed that it was politically unfeasible, but saw it as worth arguing for, on the grounds that making the argument helped to show up the ways in which other methods for allocating children to oversubscribed schools did not give choice to parents but to school (or LEA) officials. Apparently I was wrong:

Ministers have given their support to the allocation of places at over-subscribed schools by lottery. An academy in south London is one of a number of schools now allocating some of its places to children in the area on a random basis. The arrangements are seen as a way of breaking social segregation, particularly where better-off families buy up homes near popular schools.



des von bladet 09.29.05 at 6:22 pm

Is “where did” a brainfart, or am I too drunk even for an Arizonan proofreader?


des von bladet 09.29.05 at 6:23 pm

1) “were did”
2) yes i am


Harry 09.29.05 at 6:57 pm

Corrected. Bloody hell, are you a proofreader or something?


catherine liu 09.30.05 at 1:24 am

I’ve been more and more convinced that testing as a means of breaking down barriers to getting a good education is absolutely ineffective because it rationalizes inequality with the pseudo-scientific justification provided by the aptitude test.

The lottery idea would therefore be a radical solution to oversubscribed Ivy League universities in the US as well — .. hmmm….


Joey 09.30.05 at 1:36 am

This method of allocating places is used fairly often in American magnet/charter schools (i.e. public schools that are independent of their local districts). They end up with a somewhat better population of students all around — even though most, or sometimes all, of their students were chosen by lot. Why? Because a lottery result is quite different from a random cross-section of a district’s students. The children in the lottery have something in common, which is that their parent(s) care enough about education, and are savvy enough, sufficiently well-informed, etc., to enter them in the lottery.

I think it would be interesting to compare lotteries that do and do not require you to opt in. I think you might get a more perfect cross-section with the ones that require no action.

For university admissions, you would probably want a threshold of competence that the university determines is roughly what it takes to pass the classes; among the people who qualify, you could then use a lottery.


Crying Dutchman 09.30.05 at 2:49 am

Dutch universities with oversubscribed fields of study (usually medicine) have a long history of (unweighted) lotteries to determine who gets in. It is an unjust, cruel system that takes away students’ control over their own destiny while it casually discards the most talented ones for the mediocre. Previous grades or entrance exams may be imperfect, but at least they leave the result up to the student, allowing some peace of mind to the unaccepted.


nikolai 09.30.05 at 6:15 am

I am totally with you on this Harry. Have you written about this anywhere else?


Erik 09.30.05 at 7:19 am

The Dutch system actually weighs the students’ chances in the lottery by grades. There is no equivalent to entry exams or SATs. Unlucky but determined students can continue to participate in the lottery for many years. There have long been calls to reform the system such that students with a GPA beyond a very high threshold would be guaranteed admission, after well-publicized stories of exceptional students not being admitted (not sure if they have actually changed the system). Other than that, it works reasonably well and removes nepotism and other subjective factors from the admissions process. It does, of course, remove the illusion of control.


Slocum 09.30.05 at 7:54 am

This method of allocating places is used fairly often in American magnet/charter schools (i.e. public schools that are independent of their local districts).

Yes, though it is worth noting that magnet schools (unlike charters) are not independent of their local districts. We have an oversubscribed small magnet high-school in town here that chooses places by lottery. Before being finally forced to do so, it used criteria that had the intent and effect of preserving the places in the school for the children of the school’s self-identified insider ‘community’ (generally well-off white former counter-culture types). But the absurd contortions involved with the selection process (at one point there were people camped out in line for weeks) finally pushed the district to lay down the law and impose a lottery system.


nikolai 09.30.05 at 10:33 am

There’s an obscenely oversubscribed graduate medical program in the UK that uses a lottery for deciding who gets in.

“It is an unjust, cruel system that takes away students’ control over their own destiny while it casually discards the most talented ones for the mediocre.”

Exams are also cruel and unjust. It’s injust that people who get 90% get in, when those who get 89% don’t. Large difference in weath and status turn upon very small, accidental, differences in marks – which are essentially the result of chance. It’s also just dishonest for people to pretend to they can make a legitimate distinction between two people, which makes one “deserving” but the other not, when this is patently not the case.

This proposal has a long history. It was first made by Edgeworth on the basis that it would mitigate the injustice felt by those who lost out through no fault of their own, and that since exams are already partly a lottery – we should bring it to wider attention by being honest about it.


Richard Bellamy 09.30.05 at 10:37 am

Wasn’t this, in fact, the Scalia argument against affirmative action? If the University of Michigan wants a broader cross-section of the population (i.e., “diversity”), simply lower your standards for everyone, and then select in a race-blind manner, such as through a lottery.

Essentially that diversity is a fine goal, but since there are race-neutral ways to do it, why should we let you use race? The only advantage that affirmative action confers over a lower-standards/lottery option is increased eliteness for the white students, which is not really a valid goal.


jet 09.30.05 at 10:49 am

Listen to Scalia, he is never wrong.


mpowell 09.30.05 at 1:50 pm

I think this exams are lotteries idea is bogus. They aren’t always the best predictors of future performance, but they’re better than nothing. And sure, the difference b/w an 89 and a 90 may seem arbitrary, but if it is, then it functions as a randomization scheme and if it isn’t, then the 90 deserves to go ahead of the 89.

I also think part of what enables top schools to offer the quality of education they do is the quality of the students at the school. It allows the school to give the students more flexibility in choosing their own pathway and elevates the level of discussion in the classroom.

As someone who thinks that most of the real work is done by a small minority of people, I find the extent to which people are willing to go to ‘level the playing field’ disturbing.


mpowell 09.30.05 at 1:58 pm

I should add that I do differentiate b/w university and earlier educational programs. Travel costs and housing prices should not prevent poorer students from attending the school of their choice. Furthermore, in the university system we presume to educate students best by placing them in an environment w/ their peers. The whole notion of parental choice in primary education improving school performance does not mix well w/ the idea that students w/ better test scores should get priority in that choice.


Harry B 09.30.05 at 2:04 pm

Thanks nikolai,

I wrote about this in a pamphlet called “Educational Equality and the New Selective Schooling” published by the PESGB, which got a lot of press attention in early 2000, and, more briefly, in another pamphlet I wrote for the Social Market Foundation in 2002, which also got a lot of attention for a brief period. I think I advocated the idea in a piece in the Fabian Review, too, which will be hard to get hold of. I think some of the discussants would do wel to distinguish compulsory from higher education; this is a proposal that applies at age 11 (or 12), and is an alternative to methods of selection that are not arbitrary, but are designed (like those cited by slocum)to benefit children of middle class parents. My model was not charters etc, but vouchers — the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which uses lotteries for oversubscribed schools.

Could you get me a reference to Edgeworth? (or would googling do it?)

mpowell is right — most of the real work is done by relatviely few people. Is your worry that giving those people decent educational opportunities when they are children would result in no work being done at all?


Jason G. Williscroft 09.30.05 at 2:48 pm

Ah, the art of making simple things complicated…

Why not simply raise the entry standards–and the tuition!–until the number of qualified applicants matches the number of available slots?


harry b 09.30.05 at 2:56 pm

Great idea, jason, let’s repeal the child labour laws and factory acts while we’re at it.


nikolai 09.30.05 at 3:04 pm


Thanks for the citations.

The Edgeworth reference (for a graduated lottery based on marks) is obscure. 1890. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 53:661. There’s also a less obscure paper by Conall Boyle (which you’re probably aware of, but just in case) that’s created a lot of interest in the question of lotteries. 1998. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series D 47:291.


mpowell 09.30.05 at 3:05 pm

No- I realize that my first response was slightly off topic b/c it really only addresses the question of higher education. I would hate to see elite universities go to a broad lottery system. And I do hear this idea mentioned from time to time. The experience would no longer be the same and the top students would no longer be getting the best education possible. I think that would be a significant loss.

The situation is different for earlier levels. I still think there might be some place for access-limited (based on merit) magnet schools. But it would be inappropriate for these to affect the quality of education offered in the rest of the system, and I’m not sure if that is possible. Here I agree that random selection is a better way to go than, as you point out, other methods designed to discriminate against lower class families.


Sebastian holsclaw 09.30.05 at 3:09 pm

A lottery is brilliant. Is there a reason we can’t use it for professorships as well?


mpowell 09.30.05 at 3:13 pm

One additional point: in your article you mentioned including incentives for schools to include less ‘desired’ pupils. A similar system is used in Texas and it results in schools classifying students as learning disabled when they are not. When those students are then placed in corresponding programs, their education does suffer. Have you considered these types of problems or possible solutions?


Eli Rabett 10.02.05 at 11:20 am

The key issue which everyone is avoiding is how useful are the various tests/grades in predicting success in the program to which students seek admission. The answer in the US for SATs and HS grades is not very, although you can improve this by setting floors.

Until you can quantitatively address the issue of the value of predictors you are just blathering.

WRT professors, I defy anyone to find a real difference between the best 10 or more applicants for a position. You can toss out maybe 2/3 of the applicants on rational grounds (not in the area we are interested in, weak preparation, Russian , etc.) but after that it all hinges on subjective issues.


Sebastian Holsclaw 10.02.05 at 3:40 pm

So a lottery for professors would be good right?


harry b 10.02.05 at 4:48 pm

Thanks mpowell for not taking my snarkiness to heart. I see your point, and I’m always careful to treat HE differently from compulsory ed (I could give a whole theory of why but…). I don’t think that the Texas problem would emerge in the Academy context, because LEAs (school district) control designation of special ed status (correct me, someone, if I’m wrong about this). If this were devolved into the schools I can see the problem arising as it does here under IDEA.

Thanks, too, Nikolai; I was aware of the Boyle (but haveen’t read it) and will look up both papers next week (I assume JSTOR or something will have the Edgeworth).

Sebastian — have you been on the academic job market? Are you thinking of buying into the lottery?


Eli Rabett 10.02.05 at 10:55 pm

A lottery for professors would be no worse than what we have as long as the qualifications to enter the lottery were high. As I said, you really don’t find much difference in the top ten.


Sebastian Holsclaw 10.03.05 at 12:17 am

“Sebastian—have you been on the academic job market? Are you thinking of buying into the lottery?”

Good heavens, no! I wouldn’t want to torture some poor students with my teaching. I’m best one-on-one as a tutor if I’m going that route. But I think the arguments are roughly similar. If you can’t really tell the difference between smart people in college, it is almost certainly more difficult to sort them out at the more elite professorial level. Why bother trying? Why not just have a lottery and assign professors to a school that way? That way you aren’t unfairly discriminating against people who don’t interview well.


harry b 10.03.05 at 6:12 am


you weren’t listening…. This is about sorting at age 11. But I do agree with Eli on this.

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