Lottery Admissions: A Path to Fairness and Equity

With academic institutions around the world looking to increase equity in their admissions processes, the concept of lottery admissions is gaining traction. As institutions seek to dismantle barriers and widen pathways to education, lottery admissions offer a potential solution by providing equal opportunities to all qualified candidates. 

This week on the Holistic Success Show, we are honoured to welcome Dr. Kelly Dore, Co-Founder and VP of Science and Innovation at Acuity Insights, and adjunct professor at McMaster University, for an insightful discussion on lottery admissions.

With a background in cognitive psychology and higher education, Dr. Dore brings a wealth of expertise to our conversation. As a thought leader in holistic success in education, she offers invaluable insights into the nuances of lottery admissions and their role in promoting fairness and equity. 

What are lottery admissions?

Lottery admissions offer a randomized selection process from a pool of eligible candidates. Lotteries aim for fairness and equity by giving all qualified applicants an equal chance of moving forward in the assessment process. Typically, meeting specific criteria qualifies candidates for entry into the lottery.

How do lottery admissions work?

Lottery admissions can be implemented in different ways and at various stages – whether moving applicants from initial application to interview, from application to offer, or from interview to offer. The primary goal of incorporating a lottery is to complement a holistic admissions approach, ensuring a fair selection process. 

In most instances, once applicants meet certain predefined criteria set by the program, they are entered into a lottery. For instance, if an institution has 60 available spots and 250 applicants meet the criteria, a lottery would determine who among them receives an offer or chance to interview. Depending on how it’s implemented, this system can mitigate biases inherent in traditional metrics like standardized test scores and grades, which may not accurately predict a student’s capacity for success in the program.

The potential for lottery admissions to increase the holistic nature of a school’s admission process depends greatly on the approach used, and the degree to which non-academic success indicators are considered.

What are the three approaches to lottery admissions?

There are three main approaches institutions can take to lottery admissions: threshold, rubric, and formula-based. 

The threshold method sets minimum academic or other criteria, admitting candidates meeting these standards into the lottery. While straightforward, this approach may overlook non-academic attributes and potentially disadvantage candidates with slightly lower scores in one area but exceptional qualities elsewhere. 

Rubric-based lotteries use scoring systems to comprehensively evaluate candidates across multiple dimensions, offering a more holistic assessment, depending on the factors used for consideration. However, developing and implementing rubrics requires careful consideration to ensure fairness and objectivity. 

Formula-based lotteries assign weights to various criteria, generating a composite score for each candidate. This method provides flexibility in balancing academic and non-academic factors but requires transparent articulation of weighting methodologies to maintain fairness and credibility.

In order for any of these approaches to widen the pathways for admission, they must include non-academic factors like lived experience and soft skills like professionalism and communication.

What is the history and evolution of lottery admissions?

In 1972, the Dutch government implemented a lottery system for all medical school admissions to manage the surge in demand for higher education while facing limited university capacity. The system worked by assigning students’ scores from national final exams to determine their chances in the lottery. Those with higher scores had better odds, while those who missed out could try again for up to two additional years.

The goal was simple: democratize access to higher education. The Dutch system aimed to provide equal opportunities for all students, regardless of their academic achievements or socioeconomic backgrounds. However, over time, criticisms arose, leading to a gradual replacement of the lottery with a mix of local qualitative assessments and a national weighted lottery. Despite being phased out, the Dutch parliament made a surprising decision in 2020 to reinstate the lottery due to concerns over a lack of diversity among medical students.

This trend isn’t limited to the Netherlands. Institutions worldwide are taking notice, with Queen’s University in Canada leading the charge. Starting in September 2024, Queen’s medical school applicants meeting certain threshold criteria will enter a lottery for interview invitations. 

Queen’s opted for the threshold model, known for its simplicity and transparency, where applicants meeting minimum GPA, MCAT, and Casper scores are entered into a lottery for admission interviews.

What factors should institutions consider for successful implementation?

Successful implementation of lottery admissions hinges on careful consideration of institutional goals and values. 

Beyond academic metrics, institutions should assess candidates holistically, considering personal attributes and life experiences to ensure a comprehensive evaluation of potential for success. 

Transparency is also essential, with clear communication regarding selection criteria and rationale behind decisions fostering trust and engagement.

How can transparency and alignment with mission enhance the lottery admissions process?

Transparency in lottery admissions is critical to instill confidence in applicants and stakeholders. Clear communication regarding selection criteria and the rationale behind decisions fosters trust and engagement. 

Moreover, aligning admissions practices with institutional missions promotes a sense of belonging and ensures that admissions decisions reflect institutional values. This alignment involves assessing how the components of the lottery process, such as selection criteria and weighting of factors, align with the institution’s mission and vision. 

For example, an institution prioritizing equity and community engagement may weigh factors such as socioeconomic status and community involvement more heavily in the lottery process. By integrating mission-aligned practices into lottery admissions, institutions can reinforce their commitment to equity and inclusion.

What should institutions implementing lottery admissions consider?

Institutions embarking on the journey of lottery admissions must embrace flexibility and continuous evaluation. While lottery admissions offer a promising avenue for promoting inclusivity, institutions must tailor their approach to align with their unique missions and values. 

By prioritizing transparency, fairness, and ongoing assessment, institutions can create more equitable pathways to higher education. As schools contemplate adopting lottery-based admissions, transparency, alignment with mission, and continuous evaluation emerge as critical factors in ensuring success. 

Watch the full Holistic Success Show episode to learn more about lottery admissions.