Commentary: Academics Need Priority in Admissions

A student athlete reads a rejection letter from an admissions office. Illustration by Míceal Munroe-Allsup.

The entire country was rightfully outraged when it was revealed that children of the rich and famous were able to use their status to circumvent the college admissions process, which is supposed to function as an academic meritocracy. When affluent movie and television star Lori Loughlin wanted her daughter, Olivia Jade Giannulli, to be admitted to University of Southern California they pretended she would be participating in a college sport. When William Singer constructed a fraudulent college counseling business, a primary way he got paying clients’ children into colleges was by bribing coaches to lie that the student would be playing on a sports team.  It is no coincidence that these people exploited athletic programs to get their children into prestigious schools.

Most people are aware that if someone has been offered a scholarship to play for a college athletic team, they are more likely to be accepted into that school. When a highly touted high school athlete is offered a scholarship to a Division I college, any worries that they might not be accepted into that school go out the window, no matter how academically competitive the admission process may be. If you are talented enough at a sport, your academic merit is deemed less important because of the lower GPA standards required for athletes. Therefore, the nature of current college athletics, specifically Division I, has been undermining academic achievement for years.  

When the Associated Press reviewed admissions data of top-tier football schools, it was determined that in 27 schools an athlete was 10 times more likely to benefit from special admission programs. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) creates special admission programs for those that don’t meet “standard or normal entry requirements,” as reported by the San Diego Union Tribune. Essentially, if your grades do not meet the normal admission standards, that is OK because the NCAA has a loophole to bypass the system. This is justified because technically every single person applying to college could qualify for the special admissions program. This program is made intentionally vague by the NCAA and each college admissions department decides who qualifies on a case-by-case basis.

While this clearly puts athletes at an advantage in the admissions process, it is important to note that college athletics is a meritocratic system with regards to athletic talent. If a high school athlete wants to earn a scholarship or even tryout for a college team, they have to put in an incredible amount of time and energy into perfecting their craft. I spent the majority of high school playing basketball against players whose dream was to play Division I basketball, witnessing firsthand the level of dedication it requires. High school athletes with these aspirations must be willing to sacrifice social opportunities, which often denies them the “typical” high school experience. Most importantly, however, these athletes often are not able to put their entire focus on excelling in the classroom or getting the most out of academics.  

And why should Division I athletes place their effort in the classroom? If you are an elite athlete there will be a place for you at college no matter how academically competitive the admission process is. This is where the problem lies with admitting athletes solely based on their athletic skill, it cripples them academically. Ironically, the NCAA produced an advertisement during the Division I men and women’s basketball tournament where a famous college and professional football player, Jerry Rice, cited the statistic that only 2 percent of all athletes actually make it professionally. The NCAA admits that playing professionally is almost unachievable. Therefore, it is a disservice to let these students into colleges they are not academically qualified for, while also essentially encouraging these kids to focus more on sports than academics. Won’t this hurt them in the future? Since so few athletes actually do succeed in sport, shouldn’t a larger emphasis be placed on academics? Furthermore, shouldn’t these athletes be placed in schools that can best complement their academic strengths instead of just their athletic ones?

While Division I faces these challenges, Division III athletics often take a more ethical approach to college admissions. A perfect example of this is Lewis & Clark. During the recruiting process, LC coaches do not recruit an athlete unless they have a maintained 3.5 GPA throughout high school. As reported in a previous Pioneer Log issue, they are looking for students who are not only a good fit for the athletic program, but also for LC’s academic rigor and the broader Portland community. Furthermore, the admission process genuinely appears to be based on a holistic review of each student particular talent. In that same article, Associate Vice President for Admissions Erica Johnson acknowledged that while coaches do inform the admissions office of which student-athletes they are interested in, academic departments can do the same for any prospective student. Overall, 13 percent of students admitted to LC are recruited athletes. The average student-athlete at LC wakes up at 5 a.m. and often does not finish their day until 7 p.m. or later, not including other activities and schoolwork. This means they are putting in a tremendous amount of work into athletics, just like Division I athletes, but also their academics. If you talk to student-athletes at LC, a recurring theme is their devotion to succeed in both of these facets.

High school athletes work incredibly hard to earn an athletic scholarship from a college team and they should be rewarded for that. However, lowering the bar for athletes in college admissions is not the appropriate way to do so. The fact that people cheated the admissions process, in the recent scandal, by exploiting the more relaxed athletic admissions process reveals the flaws of such a system. First and foremost, academic achievement should be the priority.

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