Frustrated with the uncertainty of our rooming situation next year, I declared to my suitemates: “We should just get rid of the rooming lottery.” Their responses to my comment were overwhelming. “The lottery’s unavoidable.” “What else are you going to do?” “It’s the fairest way.” “Stop triflin’.”
I, of course, was very grateful for my friends’ unconditional support. But their reactions reflected a larger sentiment about using a random lottery to allocate rooms. People believe that it’s a necessary evil — they like it because they think it’s fair, but dislike it because of the annual nervousness and dashed plans.
In listing its problems, however, many people forget the most severe one: the rooming lottery is not ethical, and in fact, not fair at all.
Say I go into the rooming draw with my group. I feel that God is on my side this time around, because for the past two years, I’ve been at the bottom of my class’s picks. The lottery machine is spun, and for the third year in a row, I end up with the last pick of my class.
You, however, have had the most desirable room during your sophomore and junior years. It turns out that you’ve gotten the golden ticket again, and the lottery machine gives you the first pick for the third time in a row.
Is this fair?
Sure, you would probably say yes. After all, you didn’t game the system. There was a perfectly equal chance that I could have ended up in your position. Randomness guarantees equal opportunity; it’s not your problem that the outcome didn’t end up favoring me, too.
Americans love equality of opportunity and are wary of equality of outcome — and for good reason. But there are some instances when equality of outcome is desirable. If you and I both spend $75,000 on a car at the same dealership, we expect to receive the exact same quality of automobile. We don’t want a lottery to randomly pick which one of us gets the good or bad car.
The same applies to rooming. All Yalies spend $13,000 on room and board — and we deserve the same result.
Since it’s impossible to remodel the college with identical rooms — and because no sane person would want exactly identical rooms — we should replace the rooming lottery with a Rooming Auction. My former Great Big Ideas professor, Adam Glick ’82, occasionally comes up with outrageous ideas that make complete sense, and this plan is one of them. Here’s how it would work:
When a freshman enters Yale, he or she would receive a total of 100 rooming points to spend over four years. There would be an annual auction on rooms, with rising seniors going first and rising sophomores last. People would enter as a group. Students can spend however many points they would like in each year’s auction. A Yalie could spend 80 points for a good room, or 20 for a lousy one. Your points would be added to your suitemates’ for a total. Within each room configuration, the group with the highest number of points will pick first, followed by the second highest and so on.
As far as I know, this system has not been tried out in any school. Whether or not it works as smoothly in practice as in theory is unclear. Rules, such as a limit to the amount of points one can spend in a year, may have to be added to avoid having people who intend to live off-campus in the future unfairly splurge their points — or to avoid students from including or excluding others from housing plans solely because of the number of points they have.
But this auction will fundamentally shift power into students’ hands. Students will have the agency to pick roughly what kind of room they want next year. Think you’ll be spending more time at Box 63 than your room? Spend fewer points this year. Want the best room in your college? Save your points, suffer through this year and splurge on your senior year auction.
Want an average room every year? Spend exactly 33 points each auction.
No longer will students be as unsure about which room they will receive. There will be less uncertainty, fewer surprises and fewer tears. And no luck involved.
The best part? Everyone can finally be treated fairly in one of the biggest decisions at Yale: where to call home next year.
Geng Ngarmboonanant is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .