Ethical College Admissions: Selective Admission and March Madness

Jim Jump considers the similarities and differences between getting into a top college and winning the NCAA tournament.

March 25, 2019

My favorite time of the year as a sports fan occurred this past weekend. I have always loved college basketball, and the first two rounds of the National Collegiate Athletic Association men's Division I basketball tournament, better known or branded or maybe even trademarked as March Madness, for a basketball fan represents “March Gladness.”

I particularly like the first round games on Thursday and Friday with their David versus Goliath matchups. We remember the storybook upsets, but most of the time Goliath wins after David puts up a good fight. There were times on both days when there were four games being simultaneously telecast on four different networks, but there were far too many instances both days when the four channels were simultaneously showing commercials.

My friends are surprised that I never fill out a bracket predicting the winners, but I don’t want my betting interests getting in the way of my rooting interests. I generally cheer for lower seeds over higher seeds, midmajors over the power conferences, and academic institutions over those renting players for an internship year before they turn pro.

As I was watching games on Friday night I was also dealing with a different kind of March “madness,” responding to emails from students who had received either good or disappointing college decisions. And I found myself wondering to what degree the selective college admissions process resembles the basketball tournament. Both play out in March and both have been described as madness, but how are they similar and how are they different?

Let’s start with selectivity. There are 350-plus Division I basketball teams competing for 68 spots in the tournament. That’s an admit rate of just under 20 percent. That’s not Ivy-level selectivity, but it’s not far from it. The biggest difference is that the NCAA is not under pressure to become more selective each year.

Both types of March madness utilize a committee that makes decisions behind closed doors in a process that is far from transparent using metrics not available to the public. Harvard University has its personal and athletic ratings, and the NCAA has RPI (rating percentage index, not Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) and NET (NCAA evaluation tool).

Both processes are holistic, at least to a degree. Every applicant to a selective college or university, and every at-large selection to the Big Dance, is judged on the entirety of their record, sometimes called the “body of evidence,” and different candidates may be selected for different reasons. Strength of schedule is taken into account in both venues.

The biggest difference is that only 36 of 68, or just over half, of the teams in the NCAA tournament are selected holistically. There are 32 spots that are formulaic, given to teams that win their end-of-year conference tournament. That means that every team has a chance for a place in the tournament, and in fact there have been teams with losing records that made the field because they got hot or lucky at the right time.

In contrast, the vast majority of applicants to selective colleges and universities have no chance to be admitted. But what if that was not the case? What if there were a small percentage of places in the freshman classes at selective universities where admission was based on a formula that was clear to every applicant? Would such a process be more transparent, would such a process be more fair and could such a process work? I don’t know the answers and lean toward skepticism, but it’s worth thinking about.

Another thing that college basketball and college admission have in common is currently dealing with scandal. Louisiana State University advanced to the Sweet 16 on Saturday without head coach Will Wade, suspended following a report that he was recorded on a wiretap talking about a payment to a player. The Federal Bureau of Investigation also used wiretaps in its investigation that led to 50 people being indicted in the scandal that rocked the college admission world. What is different about the two scandals, of course, is that in one a coach was involved in paying a recruit to play, where in the other coaches were being paid to recruit students not to play.

Speaking of issues recently in the news, Asian Americans are far more underrepresented on college basketball rosters than they are in Ivy League student bodies. In 2014 there were only 15 Asians playing Division I basketball, and Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura is the most prominent, and perhaps the only, Asian playing in this year’s NCAA tournament. Is that prima facie evidence that the athletic hook at highly selective universities privileges some groups at the expense of others?

Perhaps the most significant way in which selective admission resembles March Madness is that wealth and privilege are rewarded in both in ways both obvious and subtle.

In college admission, metrics like SAT and ACT scores are at least measures of economic privilege. Wealthy families can send their children to good schools with good college counselors, can pay for tutors and coaches for testing prep and application help and summer internships. For parents who attended an elite college themselves, the preference given to legacies cements the advantages their children already possess.

The NCAA tournament is similar. Every year mediocre teams from the top six major conferences are awarded bids while regular season champions from smaller conferences unlucky enough not to win the conference tournament are left out. The big conferences are seen regularly on television, aiding in recruiting, and the sharing of tournament revenues among all conference members helps even the weakest members of the big conferences.

When good midmajor teams are left out of the NCAA field, the common argument is that they didn’t win enough games against teams outside their conference. The problem is that no major conference team will schedule any midmajor they suspect will be good, and the smaller college almost never has the opportunity to play a major conference opponent as a home game. The scheduling deck is controlled by the elite teams and stacked against everyone else.

This spring, two teams from North Carolina were among the final teams left out of the NCAA field. One was North Carolina State University from the Atlantic Coast Conference. N.C. State loaded its nonconference schedule with “cupcakes,” to the degree that its nonconference strength of schedule was the weakest of any Division I university. It finished tied for eighth in conference play with a 9-9 record (to be fair, the ACC featured three teams -- Duke, North Carolina and Virginia -- that earned No. 1 seeds). N.C. State was a decent team but did nothing to distinguish itself, yet it almost made the tournament anyway. Is that the college basketball equivalent of legacy admissions?

Contrast N.C. State with another university from North Carolina, UNC Greensboro. UNC Greensboro finished second in an unusually strong Southern Conference behind Wofford College and won 28 games. It played two road games against powerful teams from the Southeastern Conference, LSU and Kentucky, and lost to LSU by only 6. It did everything over which it had control, but because it happened in a year where Wofford was perhaps the best Southern Conference team ever, UNCG was left out. Sadly, in most years, the N.C. States of the world get in and the UNC Greensboros don’t.

Is that true for selective admission as well? And are we OK with that?


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher's since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women's basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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