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Let's fire all the college admissions officers

A college campus.

A college campus. Credit: iStock

After yet another spring in which millions of American kids endured the anxiety of discovering whether their chosen colleges had accepted them, pundits are yet again lamenting the absurdity and social ills of the process. Why should a cabal of admissions officers hold so much sway over high-school students' self-esteem and access to the elite?

Allow me to offer a radical solution: Fire the functionaries and use random selection instead.

I'm not the first to suggest this. The progressive foundation New America has even made the idea - specifically, adopting lottery admissions at highly selective universities - part of its plan to achieve greater diversity in higher education. There could be a weak notion of who is "qualified" - say, a high school degree and a minimum grade-point average. Beyond that, selection would be publicly and provably random. Never mind optional standardized tests. If you show interest, your name goes in a big hat.

One downside is that applications to the most selective colleges would soar, causing acceptance rates to plunge and leaving the "strongest" candidates with little chance of getting into their chosen schools. The kids who struggled to get perfect grades, who spent their high school years getting really good at obscure yet in-demand sports, the legacies and the offspring of big donors, would lose their advantages.

That said, the positives would be immense. Preferences for legacies, for sports admissions, for kids whose parents can afford tutoring to boost grades and test scores - all contribute mightily to inequality. The simple qualification standard would take the pressure off students to conform to the prevailing definition of the ideal candidate. They'd be free to be kids again, smoking pot and getting laid in between reading Dostoyevsky and writing bad poetry. Or pursuing the sports and disciplines that actually interest them.

But what if the kids who got in couldn't afford to attend? What if the colleges couldn't bring in enough money to pay all their administrators and maintain all their cafeterias and rock-climbing walls? Some economizing might be in order. For one, leaving admissions to the luck of the draw would obviate the need for the bloated departments that currently run the process.

Best of all, random selection would immediately boost the diversity that colleges say they've been seeking to achieve. Colleges wouldn't have to worry about fighting claims of racial discrimination in the Supreme Court, because by construction the admissions process would be nondiscriminatory. No more "soft" criteria. No more biased tests. Just blind chance.

If some schools went for it and others didn't, the result could be a vast, nationwide experiment to test the idea that - as recent research suggests - diversity adds value. The gold standard for testing things is to randomly sample two groups, with one subjected to the treatment or policy being studied and the other serving as a control. I'm sure some private schools would be happy to take the latter role, insisting on sticking to the old admissions system.

If the experiment demonstrated that diversity is better, and that random selection delivers it, institutions of higher education would be left with a choice: Dump the old system, or admit that they're really in the business of perpetuating the privileges of wealth, and that all their admissions officers' talk about inclusion is merely ornamental.

Cathy O'Neil is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a mathematician who has worked as a professor, hedge-fund analyst and data scientist. She founded ORCAA, an algorithmic auditing company, and is the author of "Weapons of Math Destruction."