Connor* is a first-year student at Harvard University. Lucas* is a first-year student at UCLA. Lucas applied to Harvard, but his GPA and SAT scores just weren’t quite outstanding enough to gain him entrance, never mind his hundreds of hospital internship hours, position as President of his school’s award-winning robotics team, and his many cello competition titles. Perhaps he should have tried his luck in varsity football, which is how Connor attracted Harvard’s attention early in his senior year, despite his only slightly above-average academic record and lack of unique extracurricular activities.
Lucas fell victim to the American higher-education system of hand-picking athletes over academically-gifted students to fill limited spots at universities. According to Forbes, at 33 of the nation’s most prestigious universities, athletic recruits are four times more likely to attain acceptance than other equally academically-qualified applicants.
Students who are not naturally exceptional at sports– or cannot afford to enroll in sports lessons and clubs at a young age– receive unjust treatment by the education system; students are not oblivious to this, as they witness the acceptance of student athletes with often poor academic habits to top colleges. Some of these students then grow discouraged during the application process. Exerting themselves academically may feel increasingly like a futile attempt to fight a system rigged too often in favor of a recruited, under-required student athlete.
Those students enrolled in athletics are often encouraged by their high schools and parents to hold athletic performance to a higher standard than academic performance. Many student athletes base their academic schedule around their athletic one, taking last period off-rolls and attending matches when they have untouched homework assignments and unstudied-for tests; this is a backwards approach to school. Isn’t the point of attending school to earn an education and learn? To gain exposure to an array of subjects? To discover personal interests? How is a student meant to take advantage of these opportunities when his/her concentration is divided between an unlikely future in sports and a more reliable one founded on education? So many student athletes run blindly down a path that only dead-ends in injury or a career unrelated to their sport; the system that has been supposedly rigged in their favor ends up screwing them over more often than not.
Even if a student is athletically talented enough to earn a sports scholarship, the number of NCAA athletes that become professional athletes is much too small (according to USA Today, about .03% for football players) for a high school athlete to consider, let alone rely on, allowing sports obligations to overshadow academic ones. According to CBS News, colleges are permitted to award only one-year sports scholarships, so there is no guarantee the scholarship will last past the student’s first year. Further, the 20-hour weekly practice time restriction D-I schools promise is a laughable one. Travel and other team obligations, such as conditioning outside of practice, are not included in the weekly restraint, but coaches take note of which players are present at these “optional” events; the player who spends the afternoon studying instead of lifting will likely be punished with time on the bench.
It would be nice to say, then, that student athletes are at least able to work towards a degree in an area of their choosing. Unfortunately, this is frequently not the case. Many athletes are grouped into the same majors and classes upon entrance to the university, a forced decision based on the school’s goal of having the students only pass their classes, which their professors know and work around. For example, 82% of Georgia Tech junior and senior football players are majoring in management [CBS News].
America brags the title of the nation with the most Olympic-medals of all time, with our very own Michael Phelps possessing the global individual record. Our PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) scores, on the other hand, have earned us the mighty ranking of 38th in math and 24th in science out of 71 countries [Pew Research Center]. Which achievement is more beneficial to society as a whole? Maybe Michael Phelps doesn’t have to consider the answer, for no reason other than that he is, well, Michael Phelps. But the 15-year-old who was just recruited to swim for Stanford is not Michael Phelps; his name will most likely never gain international, national, or even regional fame. And if he is so sure that he will one day so much as watch his Olympic teammate approach the podium, then he, his coaches, and his sponsors should be confident enough to pursue the sport outside the influence of school. If not, he is likely only taking up a spot that deserves to go to someone who studied hard enough to earn acceptance to Stanford based on scholastic, not athletic, excellence. Because regardless of whether Lucas or Connor attends Harvard or not, their applications (not invitations) should each have been fairly evaluated on their academic and leadership abilities. This way, no one is punished or rewarded for circumstances beyond their control. When universities consider prospective students, they should ask how far they will go in the world beyond campus, not how far they can throw a football.
*name has been changed