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A Lottery for Harvard and Other Elite Schools?

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

I remember my Harvard application. I did it by hand and you could see the impressions my ball point pen ­­­­­­­made on the back side of the paper.

This was all pre-One App and FAFSA forms, or any of that. And when I got in as a Filipino kid from San Francisco’s Mission district, the big fat diploma from University Hall had an admissions certificate that was practically a “pre-diploma.”

I talk about Harvard and affirmative action in my one-man play (at the Potrero Stage in San Francisco Jan. 27, Feb. 1 and Feb. 3).

This week, both sides in the Harvard affirmative action trial filed their post-trial amicus briefs. There’s the Students For Affirmative Action, the White organized group of Asian Americans and their Tiger Moms crying foul because their attributes like perfect scores on SATs were not considered good enough for admissions.

The other side, are other Asian Americans, who join in with a coalition of  diversity advocates, who say the Harvard process — based on a “holistic” approach which considers race and other factors — does not illegally discriminate against Asians.

As we wait for the judge’s decision, one interesting essay has been published in Quartz by Natasha Warikoo, an associate professor of education at Harvard.

Warikoo suggests Harvard save time, money and anxiety by running a lottery.

Emil GuillermoEmil Guillermo

That’s right. A lottery.

“The admissions lottery I envision — which would involve applicants who meet a certain academic threshold — would help universities faced with large numbers of qualified applicants, such as Harvard, admit students in a more equitable way,” wrote Warikoo.

Her caveats do separate qualification from admission. A key point. You’d have to qualify for the lottery. You couldn’t just on a whim enter the pool on the way to your high school remedial composition course.

And then, numbers are drawn. And the luck involved is all out in the open, in a simple, transparent system.

Sound tantalizing?

But it’s a lottery. You know, “You can’t win if you don’t play.”

What about my perfect score on my SATs?

You’d enter the drawing. But you may not get picked. Another question: Would it prevent law suits?

Maybe not. Asian students and their perfect math scores would only accept a system where there odds of admission weren’t impaired. If there’s a one in twenty chance in the subjective way, a lottery would only have appeal if it lowered the odds to one in nine, for example. Or if the subjective path  gave students a human advocate to push beyond a losing lottery ticket.

Details of such a lottery would have to be worked out. More curious is what to do with the people who usually win in the admissions games. Athletes. White legacies. NYU grads who are big donors, like Jared Kushner’s dad.

Do they go into the big pool? Separate pool? Is it like early admissions, you opt-in and take a spin? Or do you opt out and get placed in the regular subjective process?

As the lottery saying goes, “You can’t win if you don’t play.”

But is luck of the draw really fairness? A lottery in the end negates the idea of merit. And merit is usually the battle cry of those against affirmative action.If we’re honest, luck plays a bigger role in all this than we think.

A lottery just puts it all out there. Grades and test scores  get you into the lottery. Maybe attributes get you more than one ticket. Maybe perfect scores, grades, athletic prowess, ethnicity, and legacy each get you a ticket.

“I applied and they gave me 10 tickets in the Harvard Lottery,” a future student might say.

And then we all watch around Easter as the dean of admissions pulls out numbers or numbered crimson ping-pong balls, or something,  during a streaming  Facebook Live event that will determine a student’s future.

But why should Harvard have all the fun? Get all the elite schools targeted by the group that sued Harvard and have a joint lottery. Warikoo likes the idea of a national system where students are matched up. Could be like Tinder for admissions. We can all swipe left or right on each other. Once qualified.

Frankly, I’m not totally sold on the idea of a lottery idea. Sounds like it could be fun. But fun is not the word that comes to mind in the admissions process. Frankly, I like the old fashion way. My application was anchored by a handwritten essay about being Filipino American. Still an approach that works, I hear.

Still, the lottery could have some appeal.

You apply and if you pass level 1 (make it like Super Mario),  Harvard gives you a Crimson clover key chain — an admissions talisman — a momento saying you’re in the lottery with an imprint of your numbers.

It’s no diploma, but you can hold on to it a bed time and pray on it until the Facebook Live selection session or the big fat envelope comes in April.

It’s the key chain of dreams. You’re alive. Anything is possible. Until the drawing.

And if you lose, you still leave with a souvenir you can carry with you to your No. 2.  Wash U? Yale?

You can always sell it on E-Bay.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator and an adjunct lecturer in the Journalism Department at San Francisco State University. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok

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