Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

More on College Sports and “Academic Standards”


At long last — after more than a year of operation – PBC is getting down to what really matters: college football.

In response to Michael’s post on the controversy over Jim Harbaugh’s critique of Michigan’s “student-athletes,” can we all agree that the emperor has no clothes?  One of the great cons of our time is the notion that college is difficult, even the “best” colleges (like Michigan).  The “best” schools are difficult to get into, not difficult to graduate from, and that even goes for the best professional schools.  When I taught at Cornell Law School, students who barely spoke English were somehow getting by with a B minus average and flunking out of school was nearly impossible without some other form of bad behavior, like academic misconduct. 

As ISI’s recent study showed, in the important area of civic literacy some students at the “best” schools actually seem to spend four years (and more than $150,000) becoming less knowledgeable.  Let’s be honest here.  Many, many thousands of students at the best schools spend huge amounts of their waking hours drunk.  Four day and three day class schedules are common, and they enjoy a staggering amount of free time.  That is not to say that any given student can’t chart a challenging course through school, but at literally every school in the country, students can also cherry pick what my father (a university professor for more than 30 years) calls the “breathe-in, breathe-out” degree: a course of study so simple that you need merely stay alive to complete it.

What does all this have to do with college athletics?  Given that undeniable reality, any sanctimony about academic standards in big-time college sports is just silly.  Virtually any student that is willing to work at all can graduate with a “general studies” or “movement dynamics” degree even from Michigan.  Schools like Stanford can impose higher entry requirements if they wish, but it shouldn’t pretend that its degree is any harder to obtain than any other schools.  I know too many Stanford grads who left school with a degree in hand, academic honors, and a billion (or so) fewer brain cells.  So the question for coaches, college presidents, and athletic directors is whether they want their program to be consistently competitive, not whether they’re going to be providing a great education for their “student-athletes.”  That education is largely a function of the athlete’s own choices once they get into school (with a lot of help from tutors).  An athlete who legitimately gets the NCAA minimum scores can graduate from any school.

As for a battle between Kentucky and Michigan on the football field, I must admit that Kentucky (one of the worst programs in the SEC) would lose.  But at the same time, I would say that if the Wolverines were in the SEC, year in and year out they would be a middlebrow program – worse than Georgia, better than South Carolina.  But still beating Kentucky.


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