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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Should we admit students through a lottery

 Thanks to my good friend, Surya Mantha, I read this long article on the Christmas day, titled "The Myth of American Meritocracy," by Ron Unz on the American Conservative website. The URL of the fascinating article is:

I will not go into the details of discrimination charges, but the solution seemed interesting, and I was wondering if the same solution would work for IITs (not that we have a problem of discrimination).

Paraphrasing his suggestion, it would mean that in an IIT, we get some top few rankers of JEE (say, up to the rank of 1000), and then we look at the next 40-50 thousand students, and select randomly amongst them through a lottery.

The advantages of this scheme would be (again, my understanding of how this scheme would work in the IIT context):

1. The goal of the students would become to get into top 50,000, since getting into top 1000 is just too difficult a goal. This is an easier goal than the current system where every single mark can change your career completely, and hence you will try to do everything to increase the chances of getting that extra mark. And if enough good students would not go through such an extreme form of competition, coaching, etc., then more students would have a normal childhood.

2. The unfair biases that any strongly competitive admission process would introduce will not be present in a lottery based system. So, for example, the admission process would not be discriminatory to women, and we would see a more gender balanced class. (The process itself is not discriminatory, but the fact that very few women are allowed to go to Kota kind of places for coaching, makes the overall system discriminatory.)

3. It will temper the arrogance found in too many of today's IIT students. Students would behave normally with each other, and greater amount of interaction amongst them will actually improve the quality of education.

4. Not getting into IITs would not be a matter of shame or stress. There is no shame in losing a lottery. So less stress in the society for everyone.

5. Since students were simply winners of the lottery, the society will treat non-IITians with much more respect that they truly deserve. A few random marks lost in a test is no way to judge and treat human beings.

The loss in this scheme, as one will surely argue, is that we are not getting the top few students, but the next best. As the article would argue, students at the very top are truly exceptional (in academic sense), and latter students are all roughly equal. (If you think 50K is too low, make it 40K.) In a sense, trying to rank students after the few truly exceptional ones, is a lottery by itself. Luck plays too big a role today. So we are just replacing one type of lottery with another form of lottery, but this new form of lottery does not induce stress, which the current form of lottery does.

Having said all this, I am not fully convinced of the lottery, and hence seek the views of my readers.


Raziman T V said...

The idea is interesting, to say the least. I am assuming that the lottery system you have in mind is not just about "clearing JEE" but will decide the institute and branch one gets as well.

However, if this is ever implemented, there is one thing that will need to be ensured - No student should get to know their original (pre-lottery) rank, only the post-lottery one. Right now, we have students who have this silent (or sometimes, vocal) grudge against reserved category students that they received a "better" branch in spite of having a lower rank. Now just imagine a student with a pre-lottery rank of 1001 but getting a "worse" branch due to the lottery sharing a room with a 50,000 ranker who got lucky in the lottery. This would only add to friction between students.

Another problem to worry about is that the sacred branches will become even more sacred. If a branch closes at JEE AIR 100 without the lottery, it will continue to close at the same rank with the lottery. If the lottery is not modified to take care of this, we will never have a gender-balanced class in these top branches. If getting into these sacred branches is the goal, students are still going to go through back-breaking coaching.

In spite of these, I would personally like to see a well-thought-out lottery for entrance into IITs, if only to improve the diversity of the student population.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Raziman, your points are very valid. Yes, disclosing ranks would lead to problems, and on the other hand, I think there might be a law saying that if you have charged someone for a test, you must report the result of the test to that person. So, this is a serious problem with implementation. And certainly, the lottery has to allow students to get any branch. I was actually thinking of branch allocation only after a year in an IIT.

L said...

While it is true that the current system is also a kind of lottery with one mark difference leading to a huge slide in the rank, an actual lottery will be perceived as a system that does not value merit.
Secondly, the pressure on children may increase with parents expecting them to come under the top 1000 ranks. Many parents are unrealistic.

Shashwat said...

Adding to what L said, any parent who really wants their kid to enter an IIT (which is what generally happens, since a 12th grade child is generally not as determined as his/her parents) will insist they study to get in the top 1000. Additionally, how would we expect the IITs to advertise this, if they do accept this proposal? The IITs will be telling students that they'll be working very hard, and if they miss out on the top ranks, there's just a 1 in 5 chance of getting in. I feel that may discourage more good students than it encourages.

Ajit R. Jadhav said...

Yes, the "some top few rankers of JEE" should also be given special caps having a red lamp mounted on their top. This will allow for the rest of the students, not to mention the faculty and the staff, to quickly identify these "some top few rankers of JEE" in a convenient manner.

It should also be possible to supply members of this group with some special shoes having piezoelectric or similar energy-harvesting devices built into their soles, to charge the batteries hidden in the shoes even as they walk around the campus.

To make the gadget more convenient for them to use, a wireless transfer of energy from the sole of the shoes to these caps could be considered---something like a small scale version of Tesla's atmospheric wireless energy-supplying scheme.

This way (i.e. rather than using batteries in the caps itself), IITs could also display their commitment not just to the renewable sources of energy, but also to using strategic materials used in batteries, and minimizing the environmental hazard and costs involved in disposing off the batteries.

An alternative form of renewable energy source could perhaps also be a single campus-wide photo-voltaic solar energy harvester that powers these red lamps using the Tesla kind of wireless transfer of energy. This energy harvester, together with its storage batteries (for use at night-time and whenever the sun-light is dim), could be mounted on the top of the office of the local (i.e. IIT-specific) head of the JEE committee.

The scheme should be inaugurated by the PM of India, or in his absence, the HRD minister.


Ankur Kulkarni said...

Prof Sanghi you are conflating the de facto with the de jure -- intense competition and a sharp demand-supply mismatch have made a IIT entrace a de facto lottery. Your plan says, let's make it a lottery de jure. There are many pitfalls in this way of thinking - what is de jure is generally an expression of what we believe is the ideal state of the world. What is de facto is perhaps the natural state, or the current state.

By making the entrance a lottery, you are elevating the randomness induced by our demand-supply situation to the level of a principle for seat allotment. Yes, I agree it will lead to less stress. But you should also appreciate that it will lead to a feeling of injustice. That is because your suggestion elevates an undesirable quirk to the level of a law.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Ankur, As I said in the blog, I am not fully convinced, and I don't want to be seen as defending the scheme beyond a point. However, your argument is flawed. The world over, we have moved to grades because we want to treat students with small differences in marks as equal. It is commonly accepted norm in education and pedagogy that putting students in buckets rather than ranking them on each mark (or whether that mark is in Physics or in Chemistry, or on age, if everything else is equal) is counter productive to learning, gives a fall sense of someone being better, and so on. So the system that we currently have where each mark count is not the ideal system that should be present anyway. A system which treats people within a certain range of marks as equal appears to be better to me. Whether it will work for admission or not, I have my doubts. But giving grades instead of marks is a better system in my opinion.

archit bansal said...

I think the major flaw in this system is a person with 1,001 rank may be denied the admission and person with 50,000 may be admitted which can't be justified in any way.

Besides this, no way it will reduce coaching or stress, instead it will further increase stress on students to get into top 1000 and JEE preparation practices would become more rigorous.

Coming to the argument of gender balanced class.How can we say that there will be more density of girls in the next 40-50 thousand leading to gender balanced class. Even if we assume the higher density, major departments which suffer gender imbalance today(CSE,EE,ME) will still suffer the same as they get filled within top 1000 ranks.

Coming to other points, I don't see any arrogance in most of my fellow IITians. Coming to the pride for clearing JEE and respect for IITians, I think it is good to have these factors to attract good students to IIT. If this charm is lost then it wont do much good to IITs.

The real problem as all of us would agree is there are certain factors which make conditions more favorable for some students than others. Major factor being financial status of student's family. The solution I think would work is reservation on the basis of financial status instead of the current irrational reservation system. This is the short term solution, in the long run even this reservation should be eliminated by creating equal opportunities for all. With time we can improve and provide easy access to good primary and secondary education for all sections of the society.

Ankur Kulkarni said...

But Prof Sanghi, giving grades is not the same as allocating with a lottery. Giving grades means treating all students in a band as equal. It is fine to make this de jure, because it is not a quirk of competition or demand supply mis-match etc, but a fact of nature - the shape of the bell shaped curve. Your suggestion not only does this, but then also distinguishes between students using a lottery. A fair plan that can be hard coded into law is one which treats all students upto rank 50,000 as equal - your plan does not do that. As such a fair plan would be one which gives IIT level education to 50,000 UGs.

Dionysus said...

This is an interesting idea with very serious philosophical ramifications. While it is true that at the lower end of the rank spectrum, passing the JEE can boil down to luck, but deciding it on a lottery would be a resignation in the face of uncertainty.
Such interventions of luck are present in every competitive field, in sports for example, but we cannot do away with the rules just because they are not ideal representatives. Plus how do you decide where the "real" talent ends? 100? 500? 1000? 1500? 2500? I've seen great students with ranks >2500 and very lucky ones with ranks in the top 200. Would you want to have a lottery there as well?

This is not as great an idea as it may sound at first. It is against the spirit of science, in general.

Mee said...

I don't think it would make significant difference to the number of girls who will make it. The fact is aside from the Kota factor there are a number of reasons why girls don't do engineering. Parents discourage girls from getting into engineering a career here will not allow for a break if they wish to take one after having kids. Most people discourage girls from persuing science as they feel arts and commerce give more flexibility also even girls who take science are encouraged to go for medicine or other fields like microbiology etc. I doubt this kind of a mindset can be corrected by simple measures like lottery etc. It requires a whole new way of thinking. Right now for women careers are being seen only in the light of how less interfearing it will be to marriage and raising kids.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Mee, actually the data is otherwise. If you look at engineering colleges, the girls are least in top colleges, and then their percentage keeps increasing in the next tier, and then the next tier, etc. If you look at colleges ranked after 50, you will find 50% girls. If there was a cultural bias against girls joining engineering (which certainly was 20 years ago), then you would not have seen 50% girls even in such colleges.

Even when you look at data of gender balance in JEE results, the percentage of girls is least in top 10,000, and then increase in every next 10,000. This phenomenon, can primarily be explained by lack of coaching for girls, and not through cultural bias.

Swagatika said...

The idea is very interesting. I would say even though it has flaws, it is way better than the current system, remembering the amount of pressure I faced as a 12th grade student. I would say, the results should be such that there wont be any rank 1,2,3 ... but first 1000, 2nd 1000..
And then a 2nd measure may be taken to evaluate each of the 1st 1000...a subjective measure, which will evaluate the student in terms of his/her creativity and intelligence rather than the ability to solve MCQ problems quickly. I guess this will reduce the pressure of sitting in the middle of a pile of books or going to top coaching classes or fighting for every single mark.

Manas Paldhe said...

I find the proposal very interesting.
However I feel that there is a small problem with this system.

Suppose I and my friend both get a almost equal score. However he makes it into top 1000, I don't. So just by 1 mark I still lose my chance to get into IITs.

I do not think that this will dilute the competition. Instead it will get tougher as the aim will be to get into top 1000. This will promote the coaching classes even further.

What I can think of is, a pre-randomization AIR can be determined.
Now we can take groups of n AIRs and randomize them. This will mean that a student having 1001 AIR intially will surely get a seat into IITs, the branch will be altered.

Another suggestion I can think of is, instead of it being purely random, it should be a function of actual AIR or the JEE score. So if I my actual AIR is 1001, I should be most likely candidate to get that rank, though I will not necessarily get that rank.

My Observations said...

I am not really convinced if getting into top 1000 is too difficult a goal. Particularly in cities like Hyderabad and Kota, where you see a lot of alumni/seniors of coaching centres getting a below rank of 1000. The coaching institutes will roll out more intensive programs with higher charges with a promise of rank below 1000. They might even give an explanation that if you miss out on 1000, with the coaching you will definitely end up in top 50000.

In a country like India, where we don't have good number of quality educational institutions. I think it will be very stupid and unfair to use a random selection. I think the first 10000 and the last 10000 are a class apart in their fundamentals.

I completely disagree with points 3,4 and 5. These will infact turn IIT's into an environment similar to the Delhi city: where the students think they are great, the outsiders constantly complain about the perks enjoyed by these lucky . I am surprised that an IIT professor is finding IIT undergraduates arrogant, I hope Professors at IIT Bombay do not hold the same opinion. I think the atmosphere inside an IIT is very convivial, point-3 is completely invalid, In fact the top 1000 will add to the anti-effects.

I don't feel a necessity for making it easy for girl students clear this exam, unless IIT's are looking for some gender balance for internal reasons. Many Parents are taking extra efforts to ensure that their female child is also being provided with same quality of education (Although it is far from ideal). I am sick of hearing the argument, girls perform better in boards and in most colleges. What people fail to see is exams in most colleges are similar to the board exams and I think every one agrees the skill set is different for exams like JEE (and probably even inside IIT) and the boards.

The skill set is supposed to be developed by students on their own, unfortunately when you have too few institutions for a billion population, coaching centres will thrive. One significant problem of JEE is the coaching and this article ( by a Professor at IIT Bombay elaborates on why it would be difficult to eliminate coaching in India. Changes need to be done, but I think these are not the one which will help us.

Ajit R. Jadhav said...


As to the Delhi city vs. outsiders. Why, we don't have to wait for random admissions before I begin to have something against IITs. I have it against the IITs right now, as also against the Delhi city. In both cases, the principle is the same---and it's a moral principle. Why should my hard-earned money be forcefully taken from me (as taxes) and then expended on something/someone I don't wish to? And, the application of this principle is not limited just to students (esp. the JPBTIs i.e. JEE pass BTech IITian students). It also applies to the IIT faculty and staff. I paid taxes on the money I made in 2011. It was used (in part, no doubt, but we are talking of principles) to support a better than 5-star environment (check out 5-star hotels in Bombay), lakhs of joining bonuses and seed money, grants for travel abroad, subsidized high-quality schooling for kids etc. etc. etc. ... Why should I support this all for some freaking communist faculty member who was adamant on not admitting me into mechanical PhD program, ostensibly given my metallurgy BE & MTech background. Why should I be made to support him---esp. because his (and his colleagues') unstated actual objections were rather rooted in my intellectual convictions (pro: reason, individualism, capitalism) to a major part (and their intellectual arrogance to a minor degree). And, it hurts even more when my tax money was not returned to me now that I have gone without a job for the entirety of 2012, despite Kanwal Rekhi et al. (which last includes Autodesk etc. managers etc.)

The issue is moral. And, "complaining" is not the right word for it---may be, "despising" is.

Yes, I do find the arrogance of JPBTIs also to be an issue, but, though important, it's not nearly as grave as the above.

And, I (like so many Indians) am hardly if ever found cribbing against MIT/Stanford/Berkley/etc. *students*. Simple. My taxes don't go there.

And I hardly have a long-lasting grudge against professors there, the way I do against the IIT faculty. At the most, I (and so many other Indians) criticize their arrogance. But like with the JPBTIs, it's not a very important issue---it's not a burning issue to anyone.

So, the thing is: It's not just insiders vs. outsiders, as happens at every stop of a crowded train. There are far more serious, moral, issues at stake in here.

One final point (to all): Real life is much more subtle. So, also give it a thought whether the very idea of randomization in selections is not just a subversive rhetorical device, whose real purpose it is to simply mock those who think or argue that merit/talent is not the de facto operative criterion of the existing admission practices. After all, it's an American media article, [and permit me to add] dude! One wonders if they use something like Fevicol in place of, say, Colgate, so that the tongue remains firmly stuck to the cheek throughout their very busy day.

... Good time-pass, though, this one was, even if it doesn't result into anything. (I am jobless, and so, sometimes end up looking for things like this, here and there.)


Sriram said...

This type of randomness will not only be perceived as unfair but it is actually irrational as a method of assignment in the Indian context. Let us grant that that the measurement error in the IIT score increases as the overall score decreases (up to a point, we are not considering scores closer to zero). So someone who got a rank of rank 1111 could, on another day, have landed up as 3333 or vice versa. But, as a group, the mean score of the ranks from 1001 to 2000 will be very stable as an estimate of the mean true score of that group of students and consequently there will be minimal overlap between the sampling distribution of the means of the scores of those who got ranks 1001 to 2000 vs. 2001 to 3000. So so long as the exam itself is not based totally on chance, it still makes sense to use the ranks to assign students and other schemes of assignment will be both unfair and inferior. Of course, if you have access to other valid measures (other than the exam), then that is a different argument (the best such one will be performance after one year.. in which case let students choose branch after one year and their choice can be partly be based on their performance).

The second point is the anguish between male-female differentials as a function of both institutional selectivity and institution focus is misplaced. It is well known that the M to F ratio is different in Caltech than, say, Berkeley. And it is different in engg than medicine within a particular school. These differences are due to preferences as well differences in talent at the right tail of distributions. Simply put, there are huge discrepancies in male vs. female participation at elite math/physical/computation science pursuits. This is the world over and not India specific. The discrepancy reduces as the selectivity declines (look at participation in competitions, citation indices, google engineers, wikipedia editors, open source authors etc. etc.). There has been substantial affirmative action for women in science and tech in the west and yet these differences persist (so in many cases, the participation of females in many areas is amplified than it would have been sans affirmative action). For an analysis of the sex gap in math see (author is an anonymous statistician)

Arpit Dubey said...

Sir, though I find this piece of your writing very interesting and this certainly does provide an alternate to the very real problem that most(all?) of the students aspiring for iits face, I do not think this is a system fair enough compared to what currently exists. I agree that getting a single question wrong or right by your (bad)luck leads to about a difference of about 100 ranks, but still comparing a student with rank 1001 with rank 50000 is still not fair. Having faced the JEE myself, I know that it does not feel fair. Sir, you do agree that the current system is a lottery, but then, why do you wish to replace one lottery with another. Human psychology says that people feel better if they have control over what they are to face next in their life. Surprisingly, this is true even if the control is imaginary, its that feeling of control which is important. Just the plain ranking does provide this, while the pure lottery does not. Also, I will definitely be in greater stress and depression if I could not get into an iit despite getting a better total and better rank than my friend in the exam(who had a lower total and a lower rank).