Some are not athletes

I lied when I said I wouldn’t be posting for two weeks (surprise, that!). See, it turns out that someone on the internet is wrong.

Matthew Yglesias has linked to a post claiming that colleges know how to take care of students, and ensure high graduation rates. The offered advice is: treat ’em like athletes. Contrary to the stereotypes, athletes have better graduation rates than the student populace at large, and the gap grows the less advantaged the athletes are in the first place–unsurprisingly, there’s a large gap in graduation rates between middle class second generation students and poor first generation college students. However, there are three reasons to doubt the model will extend to students in general.

First, there’s money issues. The constant observation and interventions for athletes aren’t cheap for universities, so it’s an open question how many of them have the resources to extend them to the student body as a whole. At the same time, athletes’ graduation rates will be boosted by the fact that they are often on scholarship. The full scholarships that basketball and football players get at big universities are rare, but even a bit of money matters given that monetary difficulties are a huge reason for students failing to complete college. Even when students don’t drop out because of money, the need to work long hours is often a severe obstacle to getting good grades.

Second, there’s the issue of leverage. Perhaps it’s too bold of a conjecture, but I think not that many students quit college because they just can’t handle the work, but that they’re insufficiently motivated (or they’re so bogged down with none-college obligations that they can’t put in enough effort–see above). Even in logic, a course that is quite hard for many students (and oddly easy for others), the students headed for failure are more likely than not the ones who I can’t recognize because they don’t come to class, or those who can’t be bothered to turn in homework.

Athletes have a very compelling and immediate instrumental motivation–they can’t do something they love this year unless they keep their grades up. Non-athletes have the compelling motivation of lifetime earnings and such, but we know just how good Homo Sapiens is at reacting to anything not right in front of its face. More than that, some of the measures described by Rotherdam are unlikely to sit well with students: “they live in special housing and often eat in special facilities.” Leaving aside the question of how those special facilities work when extended to the student population at large, how many kids are going to sign up? Athletes also often have 7 AM weight training–picture the average student’s reaction to that prospect.

Third, many of the ways that athletes are treated undermine the educational goals of the university. The author of the post suggests that the stereotype of athletes enrolling in easy majors is just a stereotype. I’m very curious what he bases that on. Cases like Georgia’s basketball course, featuring questions like “how many points is a three point goal worth” are probably rare, but there are subtler ways of rigging the game. Athletic departments often compile lists of recommended courses, going so far as to guide students away from courses taught by particular teachers because of the workloads involved. The point is that what athletic departments are motivated to do is keep graduation rates up for their own sake, regardless of whether that amounts to giving the students a well rounded education.

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