Coaches have too much clout in admissions

The widely publicized admissions scandal reveals the outrageous position that athletic programs occupy (“Colleges Rethink Athletic Special Admissions in Wake of Indictments,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 18).   Only in the U.S. is this the case.  Students in other countries participate in sports, but the options open to them and the weight given to them pale in comparison.

I realize that football and basketball in many schools are a cash cow.  But the obsession has so distorted academics that it makes a mockery of higher education.  For example, some 158 slots annually are reserved for use by athletic coaches.  If those admitted genuinely possessed the ability to compete with their non-athletic peers, that would be a different story.  I seriously doubt that is so. Moreover, football coaches at some schools earn several million dollars a year, more than college presidents.

The argument for the status quo is that varsity athletics contain vital lessons for real life, such as discipline and teamwork.  They also help keep participants in physical shape.  But those same goals can be achieved by intramural sports.  Of course that will never happen because alumni pressure wouldn’t allow it.  Moreover, few schools are willing to forego the money that is attached to the present system.

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2 Replies to “Coaches have too much clout in admissions”

  1. Some separate albeit overlapping issues.

    1. Admission decision vs. scholarship $: Easy to justify giving an admission preference to applicants who have demonstrated exceptional athletic achievement in high school — particularly where that demonstrated athletic achievement reflects years of hard work. But, then the focus should be on the applicant’s demonstrated hard work rather than the applicant’s raw talent. Harder to justify giving scholarship $ to applicants based on the applicant’s having played high school sports. Easier to justify giving scholarship $ to applicants based on the likelihood/requirement that the applicant will play for the college.

    2. Cash-cow sports vs. other sports: My understanding is that football and basketball are cash-cow sports for many colleges but that the other sports are usually cash-losers for most colleges. Hard to justify giving admission preference or scholarship $ based on the applicant’s commitment to play for the college in a non-cash-cow sport.

    3. Money-making cash-cow sports vs. endowment-generating cash-cow sports: Some sports at some colleges bring in a large profit to the college each season — as noted, probably only football and basketball. All sports at all colleges contribute, to varying degrees, to the college’s endowment — either due to a donor’s pride in the college’s football/basketball team’s successes or due to the donor having played a particular sport during his/her college years and fondly remembering the college because of having played the sport. The endowment-generating cash-cow sports include football and basketball but also include all the other sports. Some of the more obscure sports — like squash — have a track record of college team members coming from very affluent families and/or going on to big-$ careers with the result that a squash player is probably more likely to donate $1M to a college than a football player. This complicating factor cuts in favor of giving admissions preferences/scholarship $ to applicants who are likely to play specific endowment-generating cash-cow sports at certain schools.

    4. Reputation-generating sports: Again, this is football and basketball. Even if a college routinely loses $ on its football/basketball teams, just fielding a decent team in these sports earns a college national or regional media coverage that, in turn, makes it more likely that high school students will apply to the school. Seems likely that this was a larger factor back in the 1960s or 1980s than it is today. Today, unless a college fields a competitive football or basketball team, it’s unlikely that the college will receive much positive national or regional media coverage. This follows because high school students — and society generally — have many more entertainment options today than they did 50 or 30 years ago, so run-of-the-mill or mediocre college football and basketball teams receive little media coverage.

    5. Million-$ salaries for athletic coaches: Makes sense for the money-making cash-cow sports and, to a lesser extent, for the reputation-generating sports. Otherwise, it’s $ wasted.


  2. Labor Lawyer: If high school athletes can handle college-level work, then there is nothing wrong about granting them admission and giving them scholarships. But those athletes are rare. That’s why it’s common knowledge how college athletes are given passing grades even though they often don’t even attend classes. Compliant professors and administrative pressure allow that to happen.

    Only in this country are athletics granted such importance. Our competitors abroad are puzzled by this. College is supposed to be about academics – not athletics. If we persist, then colleges should pay “students” for their contribution to the bottom line. Otherwise, higher education is a travesty.


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