New York Times opinion columnist David Leonhardt linked to EphBlog in his column a few weeks ago about the enfolding admissions bribery scandal. Thanks! Alas, Leonhardt is one of the more clueless education reporters, a not particularly clued-in breed, as we have documented again and again and again. Is a link from him something to be proud of? Either way, his article merits 10 days of discussion. Day 1.

The problem with folks like Leonhardt is that they have failed to think clearly about what sort of admissions system they favor in place of the current system of holistic admissions. Let’s help them over the first three days of this series before diving into the confusions of the article itself.

What system does Leonhardt (a Yalie) prefer? One option would be the test-only procedures of countries like China, France and Japan. You take one (long) test and then the top 1,600 go to Harvard, the second 1,600 go to Yale and so on down the chain. (If Leonhardt wants to include high school grades and create an overall measure of academic talent/achievement, then that is straightforward as well.)

The problem with this system is that, under it, only 1% or so of Yale would be African-American. Would that be OK with Leonhardt? Would it be OK with Yale President Peter Salovey? Would it be OK with the Yale faculty? Of course not! The faculty would go insane, just for starters.

Consider the expert testimony (pdf) from the recent Harvard admissions trial. Key table:

The ratio of Asian-American to African-American students in the 10th (best) academic decile is almost 70 to 1. The current situation at places like Williams is even worse because (almost?) all the African-Americans with Williams-caliber academic credentials are enrolled at Harvard/Yale/Princeton.

Leonhardt has never, that I have seen, mentioned this inconvenient truth. Is he so ignorant as to be unaware of it? If not, then why not explain reality to the readers of the New York Times? Isn’t that, you know, his job?

Entire article below the break:

The Admissions Scandal Is Really a Sports Scandal

An alleged admissions conspiracy is able to exist only because of the ridiculously large role that athletics plays in college admissions.

By David Leonhardt

Opinion Columnist

Getting a peek inside the college-admissions process isn’t easy. But a team of academic researchers managed to do so several years ago. It helped, no doubt, that two of the researchers were former college presidents — William Bowen of Princeton and Eugene Tobin of Hamilton.

The researchers were given access to anonymous admissions records at 19 elite colleges and then analyzed how admissions offices treated different groups of students. Low-income students, for example, were no more likely to be admitted than otherwise similar students with virtually identical academic records. So-called legacy students — those whose parents attended the same schools — received substantial boosts. So did underrepresented minorities.

But the biggest boost went to recruited athletes: An athlete was about 30 percentage points more likely to be admitted than a nonathlete with the same academic record.

I thought of that study yesterday, after the Justice Department announced it had indicted 50 people for trying to rig the admissions process. The alleged scam involved payments funneled from parents to college coaches, who in return would falsely identify applicants as athletic recruits to the admissions office. Just like that, the students then become virtual shoo-ins for acceptance.

If the accusations are true, they’re outrageous. But they also highlight a larger problem that has somehow become acceptable: A scam like this could exist only because competitive sports occupy a ridiculously large place in the admissions process.

The situation is different for other extracurricular activities. Great musicians are more likely to be admitted to a college than similar students who don’t play an instrument — as is only fair, because musicians deserve credit for their accomplishments. But the musicians don’t generally receive a 30-percentage-point boost on their admissions chances. Stage managers for the high school theater don’t, either. Nor do student body presidents, debaters, yearbook editors or robotics competitors.

Athletes do. Their extracurricular activities are not treated merely as an important part of a college application, but as a defining part. “Athletic recruiting is the biggest form of affirmative action in American higher education, even at schools such as ours,” as Philip Smith, a former dean of admissions at Williams College, has said. It’s a relic of the supposedly character-defining role that sports played in elite colleges a century ago.

And sports have retained their unique place in the admissions process even though most teams at elite colleges are not good enough to compete for national championships. To put it another way, the student athletes being recruited to these colleges are not among the very best in the country at what they do. They are extremely good, yes, and they work hard, yes — but that also tends to be true of high school musicians, student government leaders and so on.

I’m a sports fan and long-ago high school athlete. I have a lot of admiration for students who are talented enough and work hard enough to play sports in college. But they are not a different species. It’s time to end the extreme special treatment that colleges give to so many of them. College sports can still exist without it.

At some colleges, like Williams, nearly one-fifth of first-year students are recruited athletes, EphBlog explains.

“Recruited athletes not only enter selective colleges with weaker academic records than their classmates as a whole but that, once in college, they ‘consistently underperform academically even after we control for standardized test scores and other variables,’” Edward Fiske wrote in a 2001 book review for The Times.

The Times’s editorial board notes that the indictments do not challenge the legal uses of money to influence the admissions process: “What the government actually is defending is private property — the right of the colleges to make their own decisions about admissions, and collect the payments.” And my colleague Frank Bruni weighs in as well.

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