Why Selective Colleges Should Become Less Selective - and Get Better Students

17 Pages Posted: 15 Dec 2016

See all articles by Barry Schwartz

Barry Schwartz

University of California, Berkeley - Haas School of Business

Date Written: December 2016


In the process of admissions to selective colleges and universities, both the institutions and the applicants are trying to maximize. Applicants want to get into the “best” college and colleges want the “best” applicants. This paper argues that in this context, as in many others, maximizing is a fool’s errand, partly because no one knows what the best college (or student) is, and partly because differences among applicants are smaller than the error in the instruments used to assess them. Moreover, it is a fool’s errand with grave consequences, since it puts enormous pressure on students throughout their pre-college education and induces them to do what will impress rather than what they are actually passionate about. I propose, instead, a system in which all applicants who cross an acceptability threshold are entered into a lottery, with the winners (admitted students) chosen at random from that pool. Such a system might produce better, more engaged college students because they will be freer to pursue their passions and develop their intellects in high school. It might also teach students about the role of luck in many of life’s outcomes, making them more empathic when they encounter people who may be just as deserving as they are, but less lucky. Finally, I suggest that maximizing in general may be a fool’s errand, and that satisficing may produce better decisions, and greater satisfaction.

Suggested Citation

Schwartz, Barry, Why Selective Colleges Should Become Less Selective - and Get Better Students (December 2016). Capitalism & Society, Vol. 11, Issue 2, Article 3, 2016. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2886086

Barry Schwartz (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - Haas School of Business

545 Student Services Building, #1900
2220 Piedmont Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

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