Most people believe in meritocracy. If you work harder than your peers, you should get more reward. But as we all know, none of us are born with the same circumstances. For example, it may be harder for a poor kid from a single-parent household to compete against a rich kid with two parents and endless resources.
Given this uneven playing field, the San Francisco Unified School District decided to implement a lottery admissions system years ago for elementary, middle, and high school.
It didn’t matter if your neighborhood public school was a block away from your home. For the purposes of diversification and equality, your kid might only get accepted to a school 30 minutes across town.
Unfortunately, socioeconomic and racial diversity didn’t happen. Instead, wealthier families ended up sending their kids to private school, where the majority of students are white.
Lowell High School Case Study
Lowell High School, founded in 1856, is a public high school in San Francisco. It is considered one of the top high schools in the country due to its AP curriculum, rigorous academics, and illustrious alumni like Supreme Court Justice Breyer.
There was only one problem. To gain entrance into Lowell, eighth graders had to pass an entrance exam and have a top-percentile GPA. It is similar to magnet schools like Thomas Jefferson in Alexandria, VA and Bronx Science in New York, NY.
Opponents of Lowell’s entrance system deemed it elitist and racist given the high school is a public institution. They believed Lowell limited opportunities for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
While admissions to most other San Francisco public high schools are based on a lottery system, Lowell stood out like the last remaining tree standing in a hurricane.
Thanks to the global pandemic, the School Board voted unanimously to eliminate the entrance exam for the 2021-2022 school year. With no grades to earn or exams to take in 2020 given public schools are shut down, the School Board found an opportunity to make a change.
The Lowell admission process will now mirror that at other district high schools in 2021 for one year. Admission priority will be given to siblings, those attending Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School, and those living in census tracts where students post low test scores. The remaining spots will be assigned randomly.
The Case Against A Lottery System
Understandably, many alumni, students, teachers, and prospective students are against the lottery system. Here are some of their arguments, paraphrased:
- A system based on merit is a better system. There are enough high quality high schools based on a lottery system to apply to. Why ruin the best high school in SF?
- My kid studied so much to try and gain admission to Lowell. Now his fate will be determined by a lottery? This is infuriating. He might as well have kicked back and thoroughly enjoyed middle school.
- Unless Asians are not considered people of color, Lowell is diverse with minorities and low-income students born to first-generation immigrants.
- A lottery system will simply drastically increase the number of White students because Whites are the largest racial group in San Francisco at 40%. Blacks are 5.2% and Hispanics are 15% of the city’s population.
More Arguments Against A Lottery
- The student body doesn’t rise to the level of its top-performing students, it falls to the level of its worst-performing students. Houses get messy over time, not cleaner. Just look at what happened to The City University Of New York (CUNY). It was once deemed “The Harvard Of The Poor.” Now, less than half graduate in six years due to a change in admissions standards.
- Teachers are attracted to good schools with good students. If the academic standards of the student body decline due to the lottery system, the best teachers will leave.
- The lottery system is doing an unprepared student no favors by admitting them to an academically rigorous school. Dropout rates will increase. Depression rates will be higher.
- Graduating at the bottom of your class at a good school is worse that graduating at the top of your class at a mediocre school. Universities won’t accept everyone from a great school as they, too, seek diversity.
- There will be more racial tension and stigma against underrepresented minorities because people may think they didn’t get in due to merit. Lottery winners are not respected wealth accumulators. Self-made entrepreneurs are.
- If we can start making all school admissions a lottery system, perhaps the elite universities will also be pressured to admit more people from all backgrounds.
The Case Against Meritocracy
On the other side are plenty of people who are for the lottery system, and thereby, against admissions based on meritocracy. Here are some of the reasons, paraphrased:
- In a world where the rich and connected get richer and more connected, there is no true meritocracy anymore. There needs to be an artificial way to break the cycle if we are to truly help those who have less opportunity.
- With centuries of systemic racism estimated to have cost Black people trillions of dollars in lost economic profit, to believe an entrance exam is meritocratic is misguided. An entrance exam is a form of institutional racism that keeps underrepresented minorities down.
- Discrimination against Blacks is different than discrimination against Asians. We must not ignore the history of slavery and the selective immigration process of Asians in America that give Asians a leg up. Yes, there are poor Asians. However, the inequality is even greater with Blacks.
- An entrance exam is more of a test for who has more access and more privilege.
- Lowell has become a pressure cooker where a growing number of robotic students overemphasize grades and test scores, and underemphasize the arts and athletics. A more diverse group of students will ease the pressure and provide more balance.
More Arguments For A Lottery Admissions System
- A city (country) that better serves all its people is a better city (country) overall. If more underprivileged people can make it out of poverty with a high-quality education, there will be less crime and less financial burden on the economy.
- A public school should be accessible to the entire public. Selectively admitting students is what private schools are for. There is a growing backlash against private schools and private school graduates. Therefore, we are saving Lowell’s long-term reputation.
- Using the argument asking why aren’t more underrepresented people should be allowed to play pro sports or go to the Olympics is a false argument. A good education is a basic human right. Being a pro athlete is not.
- White families feel intimidated about sending their children to a mostly minority school (welcome to how many minorities feel). With a lottery system, perhaps it will encourage more white families to save money on private school tuition.
A Meritocracy Is Hard To Ascertain
It’s worth seeing what comes out of the new lottery admissions system for Lowell High School in 2021-2022. Perhaps there will be several upside surprises that can be built upon. After a year, the Board of Education can reconsider and make adjustments.
If my kids were in middle school, I’d still encourage them to be the best students possible, regardless if high schools have an entrance exam or not. If we believed Lowell was still a great option at the time, and the lottery system still existed, we’d list the school as one of our selections. There is no downside in trying to win the lottery.
I’m not against the admissions change at Lowell because I don’t have skin in the game yet. But I fully recognize the unfortunate situation for kids who’ve been studying extra hard to get in and now can’t.
Nobody asked for the pandemic. Life is unpredictable. It’s good to shake things up once in a while. Bad habits develop when things stay the same for decades. Further, my kids will likely be of average intelligence since my wife and I are of average intelligence. Therefore, a lottery admissions system might help my kids.
However, I’m also wary of sending my kids to a super high-performing school that has a relatively homogenous student body. School should be enjoyable and too much competition can make one miserable.
Further, grades and test scores are overrated. None of us remember very much of what we learned in college, let alone high school. School taught me how to study and try and get along with different types of people.
If my kids can’t get into a well-rated public school that’s within a 15-minute drive away, then we will strongly consider private school or homeschool. We are lucky to have these options and we won’t take them for granted.
It’s All About Opportunity
The vociferous battle about admissions is all about giving people as much opportunity as possible.
As a society, we should do our best to give everybody an equal opportunity to succeed. Once we have the opportunity, the responsibility lies upon us to make the most of our opportunity.
Of course, there will never be true equality in everything we do. We must accept this fact. Pushing for equal outcomes is misguided. However, if we see inequality we should do something about it.
Free access to quality personal finance information is one of the main reasons why I have continued to write on Financial Samurai since 2009. After all, financial security is one of the main reasons why we go to school.
I’m still befuddled as to why there isn’t a mandatory personal finance class for all high school students. But I’m not going to wait for a school board or the government to help make things better.
I just hope people realize that getting into a prestigious university, landing a job that pays big bucks, and ascending the corporate ladder isn’t all there is to life. These are nice accomplishments. However, they won’t make you much happier in the long run. Instead, doing something purposeful that helps others will.
In conclusion, I believe there is no such thing as a true meritocracy. Public schools should be accessible to all. Private schools, on the other hand, are free to admit whomever they choose.
Where you go to school is overrated. It’s what you do with your education that matters the most.
Readers, what do you think about abolishing the entrance exam in favor of a lottery system for school admission? Do you think there is such a thing as a true meritocracy?
Update 2/9/2021: The SF School Board voted 5-2 to make Lowell High School permanently a lottery-based admissions system. With over 80% of the school consisting of minorities, the SF School Board wants to provide more equal opportunity for Black minorities.