Engineering Admissions by Lottery?

The Tenured Radical blog on the Chronicle of Higher Education website has a post reflecting on the possible use of a lottery system for admission to competitive universities. Under this system, we would just identify everyone who meets our minimum admission requirements (maybe an 80% average for the required courses?), then run a random selection process that fills the seats.  There are some tempting reasons to do this.

First of all, it would save us a lot of work.  No need to evaluate all those extra-curricular activities.  No pondering on whether Applicant #3 with a 89.9% average is really better than Applicant #8 with the 89.8% average.  No reason for the rejected applicant with a 90% average to feel bad; it was just random luck!  It’s entirely possible that an applicant with low 80’s grades will be an excellent university student, so why not give them a random chance?

The blog also talks a bit about admissions committees “crafting classes” by considering the applicants’ specific interests, where they come from (trying to get a mix of regions and nations), gender, parents status, etc.  I suspect that’s more of a U.S. Liberal Arts College sort of thing.  We don’t do that.  If all the best applicants came from Newfoundland, I’d be happy to fill the programs with Newfoundlanders.  Statistically unlikely, however, based on population size.

Somehow I doubt this lottery approach would go over very well with our applicants, parents, administrators and professors.  We do know that admission averages correlate with success in first year university, even if the correlation is not great.  So there is some rationale for trying to compare a diverse pool of applicants from many different school systems.  From the outside, it probably does look a bit random already, but we are trying to make quantitative comparisons to select applicants who have the highest likelihood of success in our programs.  It is a lot of work, but probably worth the effort I think.

What do you think?  Should our admissions be merit-based (with all the inherent uncertainties), or just random?

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