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Studying the hard truth about luck

Should college admissions come down to a game of lottery? Perhaps, if fairness is the end goal

"A lottery is not going to eliminate the injustice. There will still be plenty of people who don't get what they deserve. But at least it's honest. It reveals the injustice for what it is instead of pretending otherwise." - Barry Schwartz psychologist

SOMETIMES my mind runs to wild ideas to solve big problems. One issue that has bugged me for a while now - my last essay on this was 10 years ago - is how to bring a radical equaliser to the education system.

My long-held idea, as inspired by Willy Wonka from Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, is to pour a great deal of money into a Golden Ticket School, backed by the world's best teachers. Chocolates would be sent randomly to every eligible child, and every one that gets a golden ticket stuck behind the chocolate bar would gain entry. The raffle becomes the great equaliser. If you get the ticket, you get to study there for five years. At the end of the experiment, we see how each student, all hailing from different backgrounds, performs on a standardised test.

Funny then that in 2020, I find a TED Talk from psychologist Barry Schwartz on a similar idea. In a May talk, Mr Schwartz recounted how his former student wanted his daughter to apply to a particularly elite school. The daughter had great scores, with solid extracurricular activities. Will she get into that elite school then? "I said, 'no...there aren't enough spots at Harvard or Yale or Princeton or Stanford. There aren't enough spots at Google or Amazon or Apple. There aren't enough spots at the TED Conference. There are an awful lot of good people, and some of them are not going to make it."

Mr Schwartz points out that colleges and universities have, in the interest of fairness, continued to raise the standards. "It doesn't seem fair to admit less qualified people and reject better qualified people, so you just keep raising the standards higher and higher until they're high enough that you can admit only the number of students that you can fit."

Crazy competition

The problem though is that this isn't actually fair, despite the intention. What has happened instead is crazy competition. "What this has done, or what this has contributed to, is a kind of epidemic of anxiety and depression that is just crushing our teenagers. We are wrecking a generation with this kind of competition."

With that perspective comes how luck and justice relate. "People in American society have different opinions about what it means to say that some sort of process is just, but I think there's one thing that pretty much everyone agrees on, that in a just system, a fair system, people get what they deserve," said Mr Schwartz. "When it comes to college admissions, it just isn't true that people get what they deserve. Some people get what they deserve, and some people don't, and that's just the way it is."

There could be some Singapore context added to this, too. Two sociology professors studied how a group of Singapore students at Oxbridge conceptualised luck when accounting for their academic success.

The selection from Oxbridge is not by chance. Assistant Professor Rebecca Ye and Associate Professor Erik Nylander charted the educational pathways of 1,148 Singaporean government scholars awarded between 2002 and 2018, and found that the most common destination for Public Service Commission (PSC) government scholars to attend university has been the United Kingdom. The two most attended universities among scholars are the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

In 2012, they conducted 21 in-depth interviews with Singaporean undergraduates studying at Oxbridge. All the interviewees had applied for a PSC scholarship; 15 took up government scholarships. The researchers found a "strong salience" among these students of describing their education and career trajectories as characterised by a great deal of luck. For these elite students, there is also a cultural element of expressing modesty, to bring a sense of humility when finding success in uncertain situations.

That being said, students in explaining their academic accomplishments and successes, often also acknowledged elements of planning and projection that were far from random - from the pre-university schools they had attended, to their parents' role in grooming them early for a competitive education system. (Between 2002 and 2018, most PSC scholarship recipients came from two particular schools: Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong Institution.)

"The discourse of luck might very well be an inherent feature of meritocracy, a means for elite groups to justify their life circumstances in societies that are increasingly unequal. Along these lines, humility could be considered a rhetorical trope among high-achieving elites to mask their privileged position in social space," the professors pointed out.

"However, in economic terms, one might venture to suggest that luck, in-of-itself, is unequally distributed, or that luck always seems to happen to the same kind of people."

The solution to greater fairness at colleges, to Mr Schwartz, is a lottery. "Here's what we could do: when people apply to college, we distinguish between the applicants who are good enough to be successful and the ones who aren't, and we reject the ones who aren't good enough to be successful, and then we take all of the others, and we put their names in a hat, and we just pick them out at random and admit them," he said.

"A lottery like this is not going to eliminate the injustice. There will still be plenty of people who don't get what they deserve. But at least it's honest. It reveals the injustice for what it is instead of pretending otherwise, and it punctures the incredible pressure balloon that our high school kids are now living under."

But the idea of life's decisions determined by a lottery makes people terribly uncomfortable. It eviscerates the entire notion of working hard and going by the book, because it is no more a guarantee than chance.

"We hate the idea that really important things in life might happen by luck or by chance, that really important things in our lives are not under our control."

But Mr Schwartz suspects that acknowledging the existence of luck would bring greater empathy to the table. There is an understanding that society is not just, but individuals can equalise the score with this newfound self-awareness.

"If we appreciate the inevitability of this kind of injustice and the centrality of good fortune, we might ask ourselves what responsibilities do we have to the people we are now celebrating as heroes in this time of the pandemic when a serious illness befalls their family to make sure that they remain whole and their lives aren't ruined by the cost of dealing with the illness? What do we owe people who struggle, work hard and are less lucky than we are?"

For all my daydreaming, it is unlikely we'd ever get to the point of a lottery for university slots. But having an honest conversation about luck of the draw could open worthwhile discussions about how we can more fairly carve out an economic pie.

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