Politics & Policy

How Harvard Became Kentucky on the Charles

Why Harvard is becoming the Ivy League’s athletic powerhouse.

Casual fans who scan the list of tomorrow’s NCAA conference championships and see “Harvard vs. Yale” might be excused for wondering: Is this a basketball game or a Democratic presidential primary? Neither school exactly has a storied hoops history: Yale has not been to the NCAA tournament since 1962, and until recently, its only consolation was that Harvard had not been there since 1946.

But all that is changing fast. Harvard has won or shared the Ivy men’s basketball championship every year since 2010–11. And it isn’t just basketball: Harvard football has won or shared five of the last eight Ivy championships, up from a modest one or two per decade over the league’s first half-century (since 1956). In 1977, during oral argument before the Supreme Court on the momentous Bakke affirmative-action case, the distinguished lawyer Archibald Cox found time to joke about how bad Harvard’s football team was. But now the Crimson dominate the league in the only two sports that most people care about. What happened?

The explanation lies in three policies imposed in the 1980s and 1990s, which together give Harvard a significant advantage over the rest of the league in recruiting athletes — and provide a lesson in unintended consequences.

As has been true since the league’s founding, Ivy League schools do not grant athletic scholarships; athletes must be awarded financial aid on the same basis as non-athletes. The league polices this policy vigilantly. Furthermore, until the early 1990s, the Ivies (plus MIT) had an agreement not to compete with one another on scholarship offers. Financial-aid officers from these schools established a set of guidelines and formulas, and applicants who were accepted at more than one member of the group would get essentially the same offer from each. The George H. W. Bush administration decided that this practice was price-fixing, and in 1991 the Ivy members signed a consent decree and removed restrictions on aid. This struck a welcome blow for competition but also gave the richer schools, which could afford to boost financial aid for all students, an advantage in recruiting athletes. And Harvard is easily the richest.

Meanwhile, in the 1980s, the league had instituted a system based on the Academic Index, a numerical average composed of a student’s SAT scores and high-school grades. The AI of each school’s recruited athletes had to be within a certain range of the AI of the student body as a whole; this was meant to keep Ivy members from accepting mediocre students just because they were good athletes.

As you’d expect, the AI system placed tighter limits on Harvard, and a couple of other schools you can probably name, than on the rest of the league, because their AIs were higher — but overall, it actually helped the top schools. That’s because when there were no academic constraints at all, there was basically no limit on how many unqualified students the bottom-feeders could admit, kids that Harvard’s admissions office would laugh out loud at. The AI at least put a floor on such shenanigans.

But to the extent that the AI did handicap the top schools more than the bottom ones, the discrepancy was greatly reduced by a seemingly non-sports-related change: the College Board’s decision in 1995 to “recenter” its SAT scoring. This meant that instead of the average score for all SAT takers being somewhere around 400, the board arbitrarily set it at 500 (midway between 200 and 800). Cynics suggested that this was done for political reasons, so the discrepancy between white/Asian SAT takers and others would be less dramatic; in any case, the effect was to crunch together all the good students near the very top of the scale. For example, any SAT Verbal score of 730 or higher from before the recentering would be an 800 today.

This means that double 800s are “not that great a distinction any more”; over a decade ago, Harvard was already getting 500 double-800 applicants a year, and rejecting half of them. That’s part of the reason for the insane gauntlet today’s high-school students have to run, with activities, music, volunteer work, and all the rest, trying desperately to distinguish themselves from the herd. When applying to elite colleges today, it’s difficult to make yourself stand out from other very smart kids with your test scores or grades, since everyone has high SATs and straight A’s.

More important, though, this compression means that the AI standard that Harvard athletes have to meet is not much higher than that of the rest of the league, whereas before the recentering, there was a significant gap, which gave the less selective schools much more latitude.

So: Harvard has the best reputation among American universities and the most money to give out for scholarships, and when another member of the league goes after a talented athletic prospect, regulations prohibit it from sweetening the deal by offering extra money or relaxing its admission standards. That’s why the Crimson have been tearing up the league lately, and will probably continue as long as they want to.

Letting colleges compete for students is all to the good, and there’s nothing wrong with a group of educational institutions’ agreeing to put education first. But in this case, as so often happens, when strict regulation meets vigorous competition (with a bit of statistical manipulation thrown in), the result is that the rich only get richer.

— Fred Schwarz is a deputy managing editor of National Review.

 

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