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January 15, 2014 9:51 AM Randomize College Admissions!

By Robert Kelchen

Sixty-nine percent of students who apply to Stanford University with perfect SAT scores are rejected. Let that sink in for a minute…getting a perfect SAT is far from easy. In 2013, the College Board reported that only 494 students out of over 1.6 million test-takers got a 2400. Stanford enrolled roughly 1700 students in their first-year class in 2012, so not everyone had a perfect SAT score. Indeed, the 25th percentile of SAT scores is 2080, with a 75th percentile of 2350, for the fall 2012 incoming class according to federal IPEDS data. But all of those scores are pretty darned high.

It is abundantly clear that elite institutions like Stanford can pick and choose from students with impeccable academic qualifications. The piece from the Stanford alumni magazine that noted the 69% rejection rate for perfect SAT scorers also noted the difficulty of shaping a freshman class from the embarrassment of riches. All students Stanford considers are likely to graduate from that institution—or any other college.

Given that admissions seem to be somewhat random anyway, some have suggested that elite colleges actually randomize their admissions processes by having students be selected at random conditional on meeting certain criteria. While the current approach provides certain benefits to colleges (most notably allowing colleges to shape certain types of diversity and guaranteeing spots to children of wealthy alumni), randomizing admissions can drastically cut down on the cost of running an admissions office and also reduces the ability of students and their families to complain about the outcome. (“Sorry, folks…you called heads and it came up tails.”)

As a researcher, I would love to see a college commit to randomizing most of all of its admissions process over a period of several years. The outcomes of these randomly accepted students should be compared to both the students who were qualified but randomly rejected and to the outcomes of the previous classes of students. My sense would be that the randomly accepted students would be roughly as successful as those students who were admitted under regular procedures in prior years.

Would any colleges like to volunteer a few incoming classes?

[Cross-posted at Kelchen on Education]

Robert Kelchen is an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Education Leadership, Management, and Policy at Seton Hall University.

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