It's Time to Sort the University

Sortition can make the university system more egalitarian.

It's Time to Sort the University

University is the gateway to a better life. But the gap between elite and non-elite institutions and their admissions contradicts our self-convinced myths about meritocracy that we have developed. The best and the brightest do not necessarily attend our highest caliber and best funded institutions. Instead, all too often, it is the most well connected, the richest, and a lucky few others who are allowed to grace so many hallowed halls. 

The reasoning behind the expansion of universities in the 20th century was to dramatically alter people’s economic and social status. But today, what kind of university someone goes to all too often determines their life path. Attending an Oxford or a Harvard may radically change a young person’s life, whereas for someone attending a Bradford or an Alabama State, this is far less likely to happen. Given the increasing pressures on funding for humanities and other scholarly subjects such as ancient history and classics, attending certain universities will soon include an irrevocable decision on what a student can study. 

Therefore the question must be not just how many people can go to university but how fair is the admissions process for the very best universities. This question and similar ones about the role of universities has not just been asked by progressives but also by conservatives such as Christopher Lasch and Patrick Deneen.  The fear of elite concentrations of economic, social, and cultural capital is keenly felt across the ideological spectrum. It is a problem that plagues the Anglosphere. 

The exams to assess who gets a spot at university are more ruthlessly competitive than ever before. We use invigilators to ensure fairness and tie ourselves in knots over the ethics of using tools such ChatGPT, yet few of us are questioning the fairness of the admissions system in the first place. The enormous demand for the most prestigious universities sparks an ugly reality of fraud and inequality

These practices have not gone unnoticed. Media, students, and the general public all doubt the fairness of the current system. Entrenched wealth has tipped the balance away from meritocracy and fairness into a recycling of privilege. Methods such as extensive private tutoring sitting alongside expensive private schools  see a disproportionate impact and advantage for already privileged students in their bid to climb to the top of the educational pyramid.  

Not only are applications more demanding, but institutions scrutinise ever more intensely, weeding out those deemed not ‘good enough’ to make the cut. Given the significant rise in the numbers of young people attending university in both the UK and US over the decades, the question must be asked how can they possibly have the time and resources to make an evaluation of all applicants. Grades, especially in the UK, struggle to differentiate between students and predicted grades i.e., the gateways to the gates of elite institutions are inaccurate predictors of ability. 

We currently have a system that is little more than an arms race in educational terms. Those who can afford it can hire expensive tutors, produce ‘research papers’ guided by academics and PhD students, and attend expensive private schools who’ll tool them up to look like the finished product. Those who cannot afford these extravagances face an uphill battle few can mount. I believe there is a fairer and better way to determine who goes to what institution. 

Sortition, i.e., the process of selection by lottery can save and redistribute fairly students who are currently stuck in an unfair process. Sortition has traditionally been used to discuss how we elect officials as an alternative to ballot democracy. However, in recent years there has been a shift towards discussing sortition. Michael Sandel’s Tyranny of Merit, for example, argues that the basic unfairness of the role luck inevitably plays in success can be redressed via a model of sortition.

Sortition reintroduces the role that luck plays reducing the demand for expensive, and for many unobtainable, study aids such as private schools, tutors, and extracurricular courses during summer providing the possibility of doing ‘research’. If lots are decided via a tranche system adjusted for social and economic inequalities talent can be redistributed across the system. For instance, if a student from a well off background and a private school attains 3 A’s at A level, and a student from a poor background who attends a poorly performing school receives 1 A and 2 B’s they would place in the same tranche. 

In the sortition model Indicators such as income, race, parental college history and school record would all be assessed. Weighting a wider range of advantages and disadvantages allows for a more generalisable and accurate way to effectively group applicants. The tranches would be decided upon an overall score, the lower the score the lower your grades need to be to make it into the top tranche for ‘elite universities’. The higher your score generally the better your grades would need to be. The tranches shall be using letter grades as opposed to % in order to make it reasonable for those in the upper tranches. 

The challenge in the United States in particular is that the top schools are largely non-profits rather than public institutions, and even aside from this, the nature of American federalism renders the possibility of a national system of sortition challenging. Still, a great deal of progress could be made at the state level, similar to the ‘top 10’ or ‘top 9’ systems in some states today, where students who receive the top grades get to decide where they get to go to school. Of course, this still disadvantages those from poorer areas who are less likely to perform to a high level. State law passing sortition rules reintroduces the topic of fairness to communities and schools. Recognising the role that lady luck plays for so many helps make more believe in the system reintroducing a natural fairness that only randomness can provide.

State law can also pressure private non-profits to participate as a condition of their tax exempt status. If schools were allowed to opt in or make their own codes for assessing tranches of students we could witness the system quickly breaking down. However, if it is decided centrally by a panel of experts, regularly reviewed and tested systematically this is much less likely to occur. All participating schools would be allowed to send academics and admissions teams as part of their panel creating true compromise across the board. This creates both a buy in culture as well as an awareness of continual adjustment to this new reality. 

By adapting to the social and economic conditions, tranches of grades help us identify talent across a wider pool of participants. A generalised lottery levels the playing field entirely, removing any distinction for achievements in grades thus undercutting the incentive to do well in exams in the first place. This sits in contrast with a tranche system which uplifts the barriers for groups at a disadvantage while still recognising valid achievement. Creating a fairer re-distribution of potential graduates enables both student and institution to trust one another and work symbiotically while also creating a new culture of fairness and equality. 

The tranches depth provides for a genuine mixing of students across different institutions. Building into natural luck that we all acquire in our lives sortition makes the process not just more equal but more acceptable to those who do miss out on certain institutions. As Conall Boyle has written the market failing to distribute goods in a just manner makes the argument for ‘merit’ based applications unconvincing compared to an approach incorporating a lottery based luck system. By recognising the in-built inequalities in our educational and social systems sortition provides a redress reintroducing the necessary element of luck upfront and obvious for all to see. 

The impact of sortition is not just in the increased fairness of admissions but in the way we imagine our university system. No longer shall universities be defined by their names or their history but the system itself shall be reimagined as talent is increasingly and more obviously spread far and wide. The knock on effect from sortition thus would be substantial. Instead of small elite cadres being groomed at a handful of schools we shall see a wider breach into the educational system opening up opportunities for ever more students. 

The effects will also be significant on the staff of universities. No longer shall elite pull have such an attraction. Instead, universities will be able to compete more evenly for staff creating a fairer and more balanced distribution of talent not just at the student level but at the staff level as well. Sortition thus not only has the power to alter the way we admit students and rebalance the inequality and unfairness in the system, it can also help us reimagine the university as an institution. 

It is hard to imagine the current system going on in its current form. Given its lack of support, increasingly grim financial future, and inherent unfairness and inequalities something has to give. Sortition, if not a silver bullet, is a major weapon in the arsenal of potential reform. Sortition evens out the divides, creates new and lasting legacies for previously ignored institutions, and rebalance systemic problems within staffing currently ongoing in the university sector. Let’s give chance a try. 

Featured Image is a Kleroterion in the Ancient Agora Museum in Athens