Rock-Paper-Scissors Solution

I was talking to a group of visiting college professors today about why the academy has seemed to become more distant from society. The irony is that years ago, when universities really were places of the elite, they were better respected and integrated than they are today. What the heck happened and how can we get back to the way it was? I think some of the problem is admissions.  

When I grew up in Wisconsin, we considered the university “ours”, even though nobody in our working class neighborhood had actually been to college. Our outlook was forward looking. Parents expected that their kids could go there. In those days, if you were alive and lived in Wisconsin, you had an excellent chance of getting into the flagship university in Madison and a nearly 100% chance of getting into a university somewhere in the system. 

This was a good thing for me because I was pretty stupid.  I was “disadvantaged,” in that I didn’t study. No decent university would let me in today, but back then they did. After a while, I learned the system, studied and did well in school and subsequently in life. I messed up many times, but America is the land of many chances. Or at least it was. 

Today admissions process is crazy. It cuts people off from the university. It creates a wall that most people know they cannot jump. Even ordinary state schools require nearly perfect academic records plus all sorts of outside activities. What 18-year-old can live up to this? The ones with parents who create and mold the resume from the time they are born or maybe even before. This creates tension in the whole system, makes parents worry that their three-year-old isn’t getting the proper stimulus, encourages legions of doctors to prescribe drugs that quiet rambunctious kids & drives teachers nuts teaching to tests. And it doesn’t improve quality. How can we stop the madness? 

I have a couple suggestions. We have to remove the incentives.  How? The first is open admissions. This works with community colleges. Many states are expanding sensible programs where students of community colleges can get automatic admissions to four year colleges after successfully completing their associate’s degree with a 3.00 average. This lets kids earn their way into college instead of having to make the once in a lifetime jump that can determine their futures. 

My other suggestion is to allow a little more random chance. Top colleges often have several times as many qualified applicants as they do places. They spend a lot of time trying to judge the “whole person” which is something they really cannot do. Edison, Einstein, Churchill and many other great individuals were indifferent students. I have a simple solution. 

Universities should establish threshold requirements, i.e. qualifications. It might be things like adequate English and math ability, experience in science etc. Better universities can establish higher thresholds and specific programs would have their own. Universities could publish these requirements in advance and interested students could work to meet them. At this point, the student would not be compared to each other. They would make the cut or not on standards determined before any applications had been received. This would probably produce many more applicant than the university could accept. After that, rely on random chance; hold a lottery; do a random number; I like rock-paper-scissors. Whatever works. Make the process completely transparent. Students could be told the odds, which would give them a better chance of predicting outcomes than they have today. 

Consider the advantages of my “rock-paper-scissors” solution. 

1. It is very cheap. It doesn’t require big boards of experts.

2. It is simple. Kids would not need to spend hours fighting with complicated applications and assembling all sorts of portfolios.

3. Randomness eliminates bias.  A roll of the dice is fair. Dice have no memory nor can they be affected by prejudices unconscious or overt. Random chance recognizes neither race, gender nor creed.

4. It will increase real diversity. The outcomes will reflect the populations from which they are chosen.

5. It will introduce new sorts of people and ideas. One of the values of diversity is that it helps groups make better ideas. Studies have shown that groups of experts do a better job if the group contains some variety, even if the variety means someone less prepared. 

It is time we gave up this crazy idea of classification and abandoned the idea that we can accurately predict outcomes. A little randomness is good. We cannot avoid it anyway and should take advantage of it. It will make us all better off. 

Using the tools of randomness works in lots of life’s decisions, BTW. We should always do our homework, but at some point we have all the information that we can reasonably gather. Additional gathering will not help and may actually hurt. After you have gone as far as logic and research can take you, a coin flip is as good anything else and better than wasting time on the arrogant idea that you can figure out all the angles.