A recent report , according to Reuters, finds that “more than 3,000 students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill received credit for fake classes over an 18-year period as part of a program that allowed many of them to remain eligible to play sports.”
But college sports scandals, like the one at North Carolina, are missing the point. We should not be focusing on how the university broke the rules of college sports for almost 20 years by sending thousands of athletes to no-show classes to keep players eligible for play.
We should not even be asking whether the University of South Carolina and several other NCAA schools should guarantee four-year, “full cost of attendance” scholarships. The real question is far more basic: Why do so many colleges treat their star athletes better than their star students?
The comparison between how colleges treat athletes and high performing, low-income students is particularly revealing. Student athletes are sought out; once identified they are actively recruited; admission comes with generous scholarships and once admitted students are pampered with better housing, free or subsidized food and special college counseling to help them adjust to college life.
High performing, low-income students, in contrast, take out loans, engage in work-study programs and, once admitted, are left largely to fend for themselves.
We simply aren’t doing enough to help academically gifted students who have financial need to offset the challenges of attending college. First generation college goers, attending schools far away from home and family, are often quite fragile.
As a result, the smart-but-poor struggle. Only 59% of children from low-income households scoring in the top quartile on standardized tests go on to graduate from a 4-year college, while 77% of children with similar scores but from wealthy families earn bachelor’s degrees. Worse, fully 17% of the top quartile of poor kids do not even apply to college. Recruited Tar Heel athletes have it far easier.
Many factors contribute to this disparity, but one of the most significant obstacles preventing high-achieving, low-income students from attaining their full potential is they exist in isolation in high school. They do their part in school but are held back because they aren’t identified and given support and guidance they need. There is no football coach or athletic counselor for these kids; they are on their own to develop a college selection strategy, navigate the maze of loan forms and develop a college budget.
Ironically, the way big-time college athletes are recruited offers solutions to address this problem.
We should seek out talented students from poor backgrounds the way athletics coaches search for high school athletes. Coaches know part of their job is to find and cultivate talent, so they send scouts to take in countless high school games looking for the next Tom Brady.
Admissions counselors often visit schools in wealthy suburbs, where most of the best students are college-bound anyway. How often do they visit schools in impoverished areas looking for the next Sonia Sotomayor? What if colleges had academic scouts to scour science fairs, mathematics competitions, art shows, and school plays seeking out the super smart, highly-diligent, poor kid?
Star athletes are also celebrated by their local media and ranked in nationwide publications. They go from small-town heroes to catching the attention of the best athletic programs in the country. There is nothing comparable for the smart kid. We are a long way from the revenge of the nerds.
Half the high schools in this country don’t even have college counselors; where they do exist, the quality provided is often abysmal—either because the counselors have enormous caseloads or lack the resources and experience. For example, when I was Schools Chancellor, one New York high school had a single college counselor for 2,000 students.
Coaches also recruit by inviting potential applicants to make “official visits” paid for by the college, which can include transportation, daily meals, a room to stay in during visits, even entertainment expenses. For many low-income, academically-gifted students, a paid college visit, especially one catered to their academic interests, is completely out of reach. Until the recent initiative led by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the College Board, the application fee itself was a barrier.
Do we really want to tell students that catching balls is more important than acing tests?
Consider NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, for years an undiscovered talent. He excelled but failed to gain attention from the best football programs like Ohio State or Oklahoma. So he attended Mississippi Valley State University, where he was finally recognized and went on to have one of the best football careers of all time.
What if he had never picked up a ball? And what if today we fail to recognize academic talent in poor neighborhoods, never developing the whiz kids?
What if Albert Einstein had become an accountant or Neal DeGrasse Tyson a telephone repairman?
We do not need to end sports scholarships to address this issue, we just need to level the playing field. By placing athletics ahead of academics, however, many colleges are making profoundly poor choices. The cost to our society of unrealized academic potential is unfathomable.
My organization was founded by a legendary sportsman, Jack Kent Cooke, who knew there was too much untapped potential in the nation’s young people. He left the bulk of a fortune from owning the Redskins to start the largest academic scholarship foundation in America— to find low-income, exceptional students who beat the odds.
A fortune built on sports is dedicated to promoting academic stars. The NCAA could learn something.
Harold O. Levy, is executive director of Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which has awarded nearly $147 million in scholarships to more than 2,000 high-achieving, low-income students since 2000. He served as New York City schools chancellor in 2000-02.