If you can’t have fun in college when can you have fun? At Princeton graduating seniors sometimes have a little fun when they fill out the forms for their entry in the Nassau Herald, the hardcover, perfect-bound picture book that runs graduation photos and brief profiles of each senior’s undergraduate career and post-graduate plans.
In the Class of 1972 Nassau Herald, for example, there’s a photo of a mustachioed, long-haired, hippy-looking guy wearing aviator glasses. In his written blurb he proclaims that he “intends to go to law school and eventually to warm a seat on the Supreme Court.” Ha ha. According to the blurb this graduate was born on April 1, 1950, so at least he’s a born joker. His name: Samuel Anthony Alito.
A few pages away there’s an entertaining entry from Gregory Booth Abbott. His statement reveals that he came to Princeton from the Choate School, majored in history, and “plans to make his living as a capitalist pig, following in the footsteps of his father.” That reference may have been a jovial poke at some of Abbott’s left-leaning classmates — all good fun.
But in Abbott’s case, as in the statement of the future Supreme Court justice, Alito, there may have been a bit of truth in his prediction. Graduating from Princeton in 1972, Abbott eventually joined the family business, a private label manufacturer of pantyhose, underwear, and T-shirts, as chairman and CEO. By 1996 he was chairman and founder of International Dispensing Corp., a New York-based packaging and food and beverage distribution company.
Capitalist pig? If those credentials don’t rise to that level, then maybe Abbott’s most recent notoriety might: The 1972 Princeton alumnus and his wife, Marcia, were among those charged with paying for inflated SAT scores to enhance their child’s college admission chances. The U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case said that 33 parents, a “catalog of wealth and privilege,” collectively paid $25 million to a crooked college admissions counselor who facilitated the fraud. The indictment also charged other parents with bribing college coaches in order to have their child named as an athletic prospect worthy of special admission consideration, in some cases when the students did not even play the sport for which they were “recruited.”
While some parents for decades have spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars for tutors to increase the child’s test taking ability, the schemes described by federal authorities involved hundreds of thousands of dollars, including money spent for corrupt testing monitors to physically change the answer sheets of the test takers. The Abbotts were charged with paying bribes of $50,000 and $75,000.
It’s easy to look at the parents involved in this case as pigs — probably caring more about their own social status as parents than they do about their kids’ education and emotional well being. And it’s easy to see the crooked test monitors as pigs, as well as the coaches who accepted in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars to list a rich kid as an athlete worthy of special admission status.
It’s also easy — and tempting — to see the universities that accepted these applicants blameless victims. How could they know that the test taking system they have relied on for years could be corrupted so readily by a few unscrupulous test monitors?
Colleges were warned about the adverse consequences of big-time athletics nearly 20 years ago in what now seems a most prescient book, “The Game Of Life: College Sports and Educational Values” by James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen, published in 2001 by the Princeton University Press. Bowen was then president of the Mellon Foundation, after serving as Princeton University president from 1972 to 1988. Shulman was also an officer at Mellon, which underwrote the research on which the book was based.
The data came from 90,000 students who attended 30 academically selective colleges and universities in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s. The schools were not just athletic powerhouses like Penn State and Michigan, but also academic bastions like Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and Duke, and even smaller schools that most people would never consider in terms of athletic prowess, such as Tufts, Swarthmore, and Bryn Mawr.
The mythology of sports and their intrinsic value was, and probably still is, in the air at all these colleges. Athletes are an important part of the student body. They graduate from college and become leaders in business and professional fields. Successful athletics programs spark higher levels of alumni donations to the colleges. So of course colleges should compete vigorously to recruit top-tier athletes for their teams.
But that’s only a myth. The data revealed a more troubling view of college athletics, even at small schools like Denison, where Bowen was the star tennis player in all four years as an undergraduate.
In 2001 it came as no surprise that athletes admitted to a particular college had on average lower SAT scores. But more surprising was that athletes did less well academically than non-athletes with similar SAT scores, even non-athletes who had extracurricular activities with time commitments similar to those of sports teams.
“The SAT gap has continued to widen,” Bowen said. “It shows that what I call the athletic divide, the separation between the students playing intercollegiate sports and the other students, has continued to widen.”
But classroom success is only one measure. Don’t members of good teams acquire leadership skills that help them excel in the real world? “Those who play collegiate sports feel that leadership is important in their lives and have felt this way since before college,” said Bowen. “Yet, surprisingly, this greater inclination toward leadership is not reflected very clearly in any measures of actual leadership that we can identify.”
The proliferation of women’s sports did nothing to stem these forces. Title IX, the legislation aimed at equalizing the playing field for women, has increased “the number of women playing intercollegiate sports” and improved “the talent level,” Bowen wrote. “But whether these developments provide access and opportunity to those women who are best able to take advantage of the resources of a selective college or university remains a separate issue.”
Bowen also noted that college sports programs are a money-losing proposition. This is something that might be expected at non-scholarship schools, which support up to 40 different sports programs. But the statistics show that even the big-time schools can only hope to break even, and most of them won’t even do that.
“Was I surprised at the lack of profitable revenue? No,” said Bowen. “It will surprise a lot of people, but I always thought there was a lot more hype about that revenue. Nobody takes into account that capital costs are real. It’s also clear that the NCAA data, which is frequently cited, pays no attention to capital costs.”
As Bowen wrote in 2001, “what used to be true of high-profile sports at big-time schools has spread to other sports (tennis, soccer) and then it spread to the Ivy League and then to little liberal arts schools, and now to the women’s colleges.” The combination of high selectivity and great demand for athletes would prove to be the tempting brew that led to today’s admissions scandal.
Bowen revisited the subject in an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education written in 2014, two years before his death.
“The pernicious effects (creating temptations for leaders to cut corners, if not simply to lie about what is going on) of big-time college sports on fundamental values are evident—and dismaying. Never mind the corrupting effects on the once-cherished notion of what it means to be a serious student who loves playing sports as an integral part of education. Sports are supposed to support education, not the other way around. As others and I have argued, a misplaced emphasis on new-style college sports is having harmful effects on the educational programs of institutions up and down the competitive landscape, including the Ivies and the Division III colleges.
“A problem at many selective colleges and universities (especially the smaller ones) is that admission opportunities are limited for the outstanding all-rounder, who loves sports but is primarily in college to get an education. Highly recruited athletes, focused heavily on their sports, take up too many valuable places.”
In 2001 Bowen had pointed to rowing as “the last truly amateur” college sport. There was virtually no recruiting because there were no high school students to recruit. Not so today: Rowers from high school level clubs are often recruited to bolster college teams. And at Stanford, the sailing team apparently is important enough that the coach gets to anoint some gifted sailors, including one non-sailor whose family paid the coach $110,000 to get recommended for admission.
“I’ve rarely seen a set of social science data in which things keep changing so steadily in the same direction. The trend is clear,” Bowen wrote in 2001. “I’m a sports fan and I believe you can have all of this without paying the price that we are paying. What would have to change would be competitive structures, less focus on national championships, and less recruitment of the highly-specialized performer.”
Bowen argued that “the fun of competition is terrific and should be preserved.” Really, if you can’t have fun in college sports, when can you?