Ethical College Admissions: Is It Time to End Admissions Preferences for Athletes?

All the chatter about the decision of the University of Michigan's basketball coach to move to the NBA has Jim Jump thinking about more important issues.

May 28, 2019
 
John Beilein

The University of Michigan's men's basketball coach, John Beilein, recently announced that he is leaving the college ranks to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers in the National Basketball Association. There are two remarkable things tied to that announcement.

The first is that it represents the next (and perhaps final) stop in a coaching odyssey that I believe is unprecedented. Beilein has never been anything but a head coach. He started out as a high school coach, then coached at four different collegiate levels: junior college (Erie Community College), NCAA Division III (Nazareth College), NCAA Division II (Le Moyne College) and NCAA Division I (Canisius College, University of Richmond, West Virginia University, Michigan). Coaching in the NBA is the cherry on his career coaching parfait.

The second is that Beilein’s decision to leave college coaching resulted in a spate of articles describing his decision as an existential crisis for college basketball. Several of the articles read like eulogies, with a common narrative that the loss of Beilein from the college coaching ranks is particularly acute because he is one of the few college basketball coaches who does things the right way.

That’s a remarkable statement. The argument that there are only a few college basketball coaches who do things the right way should be shocking. But are any of us shocked? Only if Claude Rains was genuinely shocked that there was gambling taking place in Humphrey Bogart’s establishment in the movie Casablanca.

College basketball has never been more popular than it is today, and that means it has never been more lucrative than it is today. According to a CNBC report, the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament, better known as March Madness, generates enough revenue, including $800 million from television alone, to fund the operations of the NCAA.

With that much money at stake, college basketball has never been seamier. There are lots of players besides those who take the court. Coaches are often the highest-paid public employees in their state. Shoe companies pay coaches and universities to use their product, and funnel recruits to certain programs. Elite programs like those of the University of Kentucky and Duke University have abandoned the pretense that they are enrolling student athletes, annually bringing in a new group of one-and-done players who spend a year in college as an internship for professional basketball.

College basketball lost its innocence a long time ago, with point-shaving scandals dating back to the 1950s and a more recent federal investigation that has had more bark than bite. Louisiana State University's head coach, Will Wade, was suspended from coaching his team during the national tournament after being caught on a wiretap discussing an under-the-table offer to a recruit but has since been reinstated by the university. It is not clear that there will be any further repercussions.

So what does all this have to do with ethical college admissions, the focus of this column? College admission has dealt with its own federal investigation this spring, the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. That criminal conspiracy has been labeled as an admissions scandal and has raised questions about whether the college admissions process is corrupt. It is too early to know just how much public trust in what we do has been compromised, but we clearly need to taka a hard look at our practices.

I think that has to start with admission preferences for athletes. While we have focused above on issues pertaining to college basketball, the Operation Varsity Blues scandal and two other news stories this spring suggest that the combination of scarce admission slots and athletic preferences create conditions that invite corruption.

Those who accepted bribes in Operation Varsity Blues were coaches or athletic administrators who sold spots on teams to wealthy families whose sons and daughters were not capable of or interested in competing as college athletes. At the same time that the Operation Varsity Blues story was breaking, Boston Celtics assistant coach Jerome Allen testified during the trial of Philip Esformes -- the largest case of Medicare fraud in U.S. history -- to having received $300,000 in bribes when he was head basketball coach at the University of Pennsylvania for helping Esformes’s son get admitted to Penn as a basketball recruit. Since then we have learned that the fencing coach at Harvard University sold his house to a wealthy investor for nearly twice its value and that the son of the buyer was subsequently admitted to Harvard as a fencing recruit.

Is it time for college admission to lose its innocence with regard to athletic recruiting? (Critics will argue that there is no innocence, only culpability.) Is it time to end admission preference for athletes?

I don’t arrive at this position easily. I have always been a sports fan, and early in my career I helped start and coach a women’s basketball program back in the days when the AIAW was trying to keep the NCAA from taking control of women’s sports.

Admissions preferences for recruited athletes are the most pervasive and powerful of all admission “hooks.” They are also the least defensible.

Preferences for underrepresented populations are grounded in a belief that higher education has a responsibility to promote access and social mobility, and that there is educational value in bringing together students with diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. Legacy preferences may resemble the transfer of property from generation to generation, but they also reflect a belief in loyalty to the college or university family.

Preferences for athletes have no educational value. We may talk of the playing field as a classroom, but the behavior and language used by college coaches would be unacceptable for any other university employee in interactions with students.

Division I student athletes have a clear understanding that getting an education takes second place to their athletic obligations, and it may not be all that different in Division III. I recently talked to a couple of students who had been key players on a national championship team at one of the nation’s best liberal arts colleges. The college promoted the scholar-athlete ideal, but their coach made it clear that nothing was to get in the way of the sport.

The issues are both philosophical and logistical. At the philosophical level, big-time intercollegiate athletics serve the advancement mission of an institution rather than its educational mission. If we were honest, we’d hire and pay athletes as public relations employees of the university, allowing them to take classes if they wish, rather than pretending that they are college students first and athletes second.

For highly selective institutions like those targeted in the Operation Varsity Blues conspiracy, places in the freshman class are scarce commodities. In that scenario admission is a zero-sum game, in that for every student who is admitted someone else (or up to 19 other someones) is denied admission. Every recruited athlete admitted takes a spot from someone probably more qualified academically. At many selective schools, a quarter of the student body may be athletes. At a place like Harvard that has 42 varsity teams, more than any other Division I school, that’s a lot of admission spots taken.

A recent New York Times article reported that many colleges and universities are examining their oversight of the athletic admissions procedures hacked by Rick Singer and those working with him in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. Perhaps they should expand that examination to whether they should be giving athletes admission preference at all.

Bio

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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