Editor’s Note: John MacIntosh played squash and tennis at Princeton before going on to a career in private equity and the nonprofit world. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinions at CNN.
The college admissions scandal may get elite colleges to do what they should have done long ago: abolish the athletic recruit as a discrete admission category and deprioritize the importance of athletic success.
A key portion of the alleged fraud was only possible because recruit “slots” have tremendous value in the application decision even though the performance of most admitted athletes doesn’t matter much. (If it did, the schools would have noticed that the admitted students were not athletes at all and didn’t actually play!)
Elite schools generally deny the existence of the admission preference. As one Ivy League dean of admissions said, “We do not emphasize one activity over the other: Athletics as well as artistic endeavors are equally regarded. They both present students with opportunities to show and develop character.” But the alleged fraud proves that this isn’t true.
Recruits with adequate test scores were virtually assured admission, while unrecruited applicants presumably still needed good grades, a rigorous course load, heartfelt essays, solid recommendations and the other elements of a strong holistic application. If other endeavors were equally regarded, the alleged fraudsters would have created fake dancers, fake violinists, and fake debaters. But they didn’t, since those endeavors don’t have admission slots or corrupt coaches to sell them.
Although the corrupting influence of college sports is usually associated with coaches, sneaker representatives, and agents connected with Big Time football and basketball programs, it can affect entire institutions, as well. Ironically, the institutions most vulnerable are not athletic powerhouses but rather the smaller, highly selective universities that field more teams involving a far greater percentage of students. (Harvard’s 40-plus teams represent about 20% of its students. Michigan’s 29 teams represent about 3% of its.)
In “Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values,” Bill Bowen, the former president of Princeton, proved in painstaking detail that recruited athletes (as a group) at selective universities got preferential treatment in admissions despite lower academic credentials, that they underperformed throughout college, and that they chose easier majors.
Bowen, himself a former college athlete, argued against the unquestioned spread of an arms-race of “athletic intensification” characterized by the emulation of highly publicized teams by low-profile sports, of men’s programs by women’s, and of athletic powerhouses by small colleges; an intensification that was pulling institutions from their core educational missions.
Bowen’s plea to halt the athletic arms race has gone unheeded for almost 15 years. But with elite colleges now under pressure on multiple fronts, perhaps this latest scandal will give them the courage to do what they’ve long known is right.
In an era of heightened sensitivity to issues of sexual misconduct, it has become impossible to deny the deleterious effect that an athlete subculture can have on college campuses. Many of the top-ranked colleges in the country have had athlete-related problems in the recent past, including several cases where whole teams kept “rate the women” spreadsheets.
It is disingenuous to argue that athletic excellence “shows and develops character” to the same degree it might once have. In many cases, it’s just the opposite. The admissions signals sent by selective colleges have spawned a vast and rapacious Youth Sports Industrial Complex that devours childhoods (and parental income) at a frightening rate. Children are focusing on single sports at younger ages, with 12-years-olds dropping out because it’s “too late” and they are “not good enough”.
The time and money required to strive for the ever-higher levels of performance required for recruit status requires inordinate financial sacrifice for pro-coached travel teams, camps or even sports academies. The time-on-task of would-be recruits leaves them little additional time to explore or pursue other interests, or, God forbid, enjoy the pleasures of childhood.
Imagine a college applicant who had been singularly focused on playing video games since age 8, practiced three days a week during the school year, plus tournaments most weekends, and went to video game camp in the summer. Imagine parents who had invested more than $100,000 in equipment, travel and coaching (or perhaps had even home-schooled or enrolled their child in a private equity owned video-game academy), and a youngster who expressed a desire to spend even more time playing video games in college.
It seems obvious that this applicant would be dismissed out of hand as one-dimensional, regardless of his level of gaming excellence and test scores. Now imagine that the college has an e-sports team with a coach and dedicated recruiting slots.
The affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard should motivate elite colleges to be very thoughtful about their admissions process, lest the whole edifice come tumbling down in favor of court-mandated, nothing-but-academics horror. Selecting applicants on the basis of “ability to improve the success of the squash team” is arbitrary and disconnected from the academic and social mission of universities in a way that truly important admission criteria (for example, ensuring a balance of life experience and viewpoints) are not. If elite colleges cannot have it all, they should pick their admissions-process-related battles carefully.
My hope is that Yale, as part of its response to this recent scandal, or better yet the entire Ivy League, withdraws from the athletics arms race by fielding teams entirely composed of walk-ons who are at the college and happen to play the sport as opposed to recruits who have been admitted for the purpose. Athletic interest and achievement would remain an important part of the application process, but only on par with other extracurriculars where there are no recruits. (Julliard should have violin recruits because it’s a music school; Yale is not a sports academy.)
This could be piloted in sports like soccer and tennis where there is no doubt that both the men’s and women’s rosters could be filled from the regular admission pool. For other teams, the number of recruits could be reduced to a bare minimum (ideally zero) over time and allocated across the league to maintain parity.
Teams for which there proved to be insufficient demand from students without unnatural acts of recruiting would, despite the inevitable howls of alumni, be discontinued while other teams might be started, given naturally occurring student interest.
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The admission scandal is related to things that even courageous college leadership can’t do much about: the increasing premium on “elite schools” in an increasingly unequal society; the desire for unfair advantage for their children by families; a sense of entitlement by the wealthy and their palpable fear of falling; naked greed; and the sad, distorted love some parents feel for the children they wish they had, rather than the ones they do. But it is also about a college sports system run amok, where change is possible and long overdue.
As Rahm Emanuel said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”