Richard K. Rein’s March 27 column on the college admission scandal generated some thoughtful reactions from the community. As the column indicated, back doors to college admissions come via standardized testing, where fraudulent test monitors sold their services to rig tests or alter answer sheets, and college sports, where some coaches accepted bribes to put high school seniors on their lists of recruits deserving special consideration.
No one suggested that SAT scores be de-emphasized in the admission process. But most people agreed with the contention, expressed in 2001 by former Princeton president William G. Bowen in a book called “The Game of Life,” that college sports had become more important than they deserved to be on many college campuses.
One of the more nuanced responses to Rein’s column came from his friend, the historian and author Edward Tenner, who provided a link to a 2002 speech by Hal C. Scott, a college classmate of Tenner at Princeton who became a professor of international financial systems at Harvard Law School.
Scott’s address was delivered on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of intercollegiate sports at Harvard, and the professor took issue with Bowen’s book and its underlying statistics:
“This book is a primer on the misuse of statistics. It is built on a non-representative database of 30 schools, 4 of which are entirely discarded. For some issues only 15 are used. The study constantly shifts its kaleidoscope on the data to make a point,” Scott said. “The authors attempt to document the difference in admission credentials between athletes and other students mainly by looking at [SAT] test scores, using them as, in effect, a gold standard, despite the fact that they are not a very good predictor of academic performance. The most recent California study shows that they predict less than 13.6 percent of variance in GPAs at selective schools.”
The text of Scott’s speech can be found in full at www.Row2K.com, a website devoted to competitive rowing, which Bowen in his book held out as the last “truly amateur sport.” On that same website is a reprint of a recent Washington Post article on the current admission scandal, which notes that “the affluent also use legal ways to take advantage of a system that favors athletes in college admissions.”
In addition to recruiting for the high profile sports, the Post reports, “elite schools also reserve a sizable slice of each class for kids with more exclusive pursuits, such as skiing, sailing, and crew. While schools are trying to diversify the rosters, the sports remain overwhelmingly white, sporadically offered at public high schools, and can require expensive equipment. The result is an admissions boost for the most privileged applicants . . . In the cutthroat game of college acceptance, an interest in rowing can offer a significant edge. It’s an open secret among some parents.”
So it seems the admission scandal has become a heady combination of academic debate and sports controversy. People are likely to talk about it for a long time.